(Washington, DC, October 23, 2018) – A leading organization promoting the rights of older people awarded Human Rights Watch its annual Public Service Award on October 22, 2018.

The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care presents the award to an individual or organization whose work has expanded coverage and public understanding of long-term care for older people. The award was presented in recognition of Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report “‘They Want Docile’: How Nursing Homes in the United States Overmedicate People with Dementia.” The report estimates that every week in US nursing facilities, more than 179,000 people, most of them older and living with dementia, are given antipsychotic drugs without a diagnosis for which their use is approved. In many cases, nursing facilities use these drugs without obtaining or even seeking informed consent.

“We are honored to receive Consumer Voice’s recognition for this work,” said Bethany Brown, researcher on older people’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “We are proud of our partnership with them and with other dedicated advocates around the country to promote equality and dignity for older people living in nursing facilities.”

Human Rights Watch visited 109 nursing homes in six states and interviewed 300 people living in facilities, their families, staff, government officials, and others, and analyzed publicly available data. Human Rights Watch found that nursing homes routinely give antipsychotic drugs to residents with dementia to control their behavior. Regulations prohibit this misuse of drugs as “chemical restraints.” This abusive practice remains widespread even though the use of antipsychotics on older people with dementia is associated with a nearly doubled risk of death.

Using antipsychotic medications as a “chemical restraint” – for the convenience of staff or to discipline residents – violates US federal regulations and may amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under international human rights law. Using the drugs without adequate indication for use or appropriate monitoring is also barred under federal standards.

Human Rights Watch recommended that national government and state agencies should strengthen their enforcement of federal regulations regarding antipsychotic drugs. Residents and their families should be told they have the right to be informed of their treatment alternatives and their right to refuse. The government should ensure that nursing homes employ enough staff to provide adequate care.

“Human Rights Watch research and reporting sparked a greater understanding of some of the risks to older people in nursing homes in the United States,” said Lori Smetanka, executive director of the Consumer Voice. “With this award, we recognize this important contribution to public awareness and encourage government and state agencies to ensure all older people have the right to choose and refuse treatment for themselves.”

Video: Oversedation in Nursing Homes across the United States

Nursing homes across the United States routinely give antipsychotic drugs to residents with dementia to control their behavior, despite regulatory prohibitions on this misuse of drugs as “chemical restraints.” This abusive practice remains widespread even though the use of antipsychotics is associated with a nearly doubled risk of death in older people with dementia.