Category Archives: Health

Forced Drugging of Seniors Still Increasing

Ombudsperson, BCCLA and Greens criticize BC’s draconian laws.

I WAS READING THE CORONER’S REPORT on Kathleen Palamarek and something didn’t seem right. I’d been following her story since 2006. This was a diminutive, timid, 88-year-old nursing home resident with dementia and a heart condition, who’d been somewhat controversially diagnosed with dementia-related psychosis. She’d died of a heart attack. The coroner had found the antipsychotic olanzapine in her body.

Palamarek hadn’t been taking olanzapine willingly; she’d frequently complained about feeling woozy and “drugged up.” She couldn’t refuse the drug, though, because her doctors had declared her incapable and, when she’d protested, they’d certified her under BC’s Mental Health Act (MHA). Antipsychotics are being used increasingly in seniors’ homes as chemical restraints to pacify and control people. But Health Canada has issued the highest possible warnings to doctors that antipsychotics are “not approved for the treatment of patients with dementia-related psychosis” and that these powerful tranquillizers have been linked to a near-doubling of death rates in the elderly, mostly from heart attacks.

Yet here’s what coroner Stan Lajoie wrote about Kathleen Palamarek’s heart attack: “Death was clearly and unequivocally due to natural causes.” There was not so much as a hint anywhere in his seven-page report that her heart attack might have been linked to a drug known to dramatically increase heart attacks in the heart-weakened elderly. Why?

Click here for the rest of the article in April’s Focus magazine.

Dispatches from the Urban Meter Wars

Resistance to BC Hydro’s smart meters still seems strong, but it’s hard to tell who’s winning.

A BC Hydro rep gave a presentation at a recent meeting about energy conservation initiatives. Unbidden, he began by letting us know, “One thing we’re not going to discuss today is smart meters.”

Since I was filling in for a friend and not there “as journalist,” I won’t disclose details. Suffice to say the meeting was filled with people very supportive of energy conservation.

When the BC Hydro rep inadvertently mentioned smart meters some minutes later, he interrupted himself: “Let’s not go there.”

When his PowerPoint slide about smart meters popped up, he jumped to the next slide. He wasn’t even going to try to make the case for them to this knowledgeable group.

As we received this in polite silence, it began to sink in for all of us, I think, just how deeply damaging the Liberal “slam smart meters down their throats” campaign has been for BC Hydro’s reputation.

***

A retired Saanich woman, not keen to have a smart meter in her home, recently called to tell me her story. After some exchanges of emails and phone calls with various BC Hydro representatives, she said, one rep “ended our phone discussion with the interesting advice that I should be looking into alternative energy sources.”

Go to the article at Focus Online

Getting a Read on Smart Meters

Smart meters won’t endanger health or privacy, and will conserve energy, reduce theft, and produce cost savings. Or so BC Hydro tells us. But is there a hidden agenda driving what may be a billion-dollar boondoggle?

 

One exchange at BC Hydro’s tense public meeting in Victoria in March was emblematic of the debates about smart meters. Asked about the health dangers of smart meters’ wireless electromagnetic fields (EMF), BC Hydro consultant Dr John Blatherwick explained they’d rarely be transmitting, anyway: “Those things will be [operating] for one minute [per day] on average, up to a maximum of three [minutes].”

BC Hydro has said the same, but coming from a former Vancouver chief medical officer, this reassurance carried weight.

However, Walter McGinnis, an electrician who retrofits homes to reduce EMFs, said the meters actually communicate constantly, but in energy micro-bursts. He claimed BC Hydro was using sleight of hand to disguise that—like claiming a strobe light flashing on for 0.05 seconds every half second is technically only “on” for six minutes per hour.

“I have tested it,” said McGinnis. “The meter does transmit all day every day.”

“I can’t debate that with you,” returned Blatherwick. “I do not know the specifics.”

It was shocking to see Blatherwick blithely switch from shining a responsible, authoritative light onto the technical reasons why we needn’t worry, to admitting being in the dark about what he was even talking about.

Read more.

Kathleen’s Demise: a cautionary tale

There’s much to learn about BC’s laws and eldercare system from the last years of Kathleen Palamarek’s life in a local nursing home—especially from the battles that were fought in her name between her children, care providers and the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

 

It was a small but important epitaph for a much-loved woman. NDP West Kootenay MLA Katrine Conroy spoke in the provincial legislature in June in support of a public inquiry into the recent “suspicious death” of Kathleen Palamarek, an 88-year-old resident of Broadmead Lodge in Saanich.

During Lois Sampson née Palamarek’s five-year struggle to help get her mother out of the nursing home, Kathleen became an icon to local seniors advocates. That’s why the Saanich Peninsula Health Association, Vancouver Island Association of Family Councils, Old Age Pensioners Organization local, and others have been blitzing politicians, media and public agencies with requests for an inquiry.

“[T]he suspected abuse was due to overmedication, and the family needs answers,” said Conroy.

Yet the story involves much more than possible improper medicating; I’ve been following it since 2006. Kathleen’s life, and now death, is a tragic example of how our outdated guardianship laws summarily declare seniors “incapable” and thereby turn them into battle zones over which families, health professionals and others fight for control amidst an increasingly troubled eldercare system.

Read more.

Crisis Behind Closed Doors

Data obtained through a Freedom of Information request shows nearly half of all seniors in long-term care in BC are being given antipsychotics like Risperdal, Zyprexa and Seroquel. That’s almost twice the average for the rest of Canada and amongst the highest rates found anywhere in the world. And even though Health Canada warns these drugs cause a doubling of death rates in the elderly, care workers admit they’re mainly being used as chemical restraints in the absence of adequate staffing and proper oversight.

“IT WILL RELAX YOU.” That’s the only explanation hospital staff gave when administering the antipsychotic medication to Carl. At least, that’s the only reason he recalls—soon he began experiencing “very strange cognitive feelings.”

“I’m a reasonably logical person,” he says, but suddenly he was in a “swimmy universe that didn’t make any sense.”

Carl (not his real name) became indifferent to his normal interests; inexplicably disengaged when friends visited: “like I was talking to them through a tunnel.” He felt as if he was in a “mind meld” with the Alzheimer’s patient next to him, losing his memory and connection to the world. Though he reportedly looked more docile, inwardly he was intensely disturbed. “I wasn’t relaxed at all.”

Carl didn’t understand what was happening and assumed the serious physical illness for which he was receiving treatment was the cause. Yet his experiences come straight out of the clinical drug literature.

A 2009 study of people’s subjective experiences with taking antipsychotics found many complained about “cognitive impairment” and “emotional flattening,” while few mentioned calmness or relaxation.

Antipsychotics are a class of tranquillizing drugs routinely used to help rein in the minds of people diagnosed with intense schizophrenia. In recent years, they’ve been used increasingly (albeit usually in smaller doses) to “calm” elderly people with dementia in hospitals and long-term care facilities.

Yet they’re hardly benign. Now widely described in medical literature as “chemical restraints,” common effects include foggy somnolence and disorientation, cognitive impairment, akathisia or “inner agitation,” extreme weight gain, diabetes, loss of muscle control, and muscle rigidity. Within a year of use, fully one-third of seniors will have Parkinson’s-like tremors from drug-induced brain damage. Within several months of use, death rates of seniors double—mainly from heart attacks.

Fortuitously for Carl, one long-time friend visiting him daily happened to be a nurse. She knew his illness could’ve precipitated some temporary psychological slippage, but nothing like what she was seeing.

“His personality was changing,” she says. “His cognitive level was changing in a downward spiral.”

But hospital staff barely knew Carl except in this irrational, helpless state, so they told her she should prepare for her 65-year-old, recently retired friend to spend the rest of his days in a nursing home.

After hearing of Carl’s story, I wondered: How many more like him are there?

 

Half of all residents are given antipsychotics

For two years, I tried to find out how many seniors in BC long-term care facilities were being given antipsychotics. Freedom of Information deadlines came and went. Not a single report, document, or email appeared.

It seemed unbelievable that this number wasn’t known. Since 2002, Health Canada has been repeatedly warning doctors against using antipsychotics in seniors with dementia because of the doubling of death rates. Nevertheless, antipsychotic use in Canadian nursing homes has continued rising inexorably, and alarm has been spreading through the medical literature and media. In 2006, BC spent $76 million on antipsychotics, making them our fifth most expensive class of drugs (for comparison, that’s double the arts and sports funding in our provincial budget). Yet no one in BC’s health ministry had the slightest interest?

Even my contact at the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner became frustrated with my persistence. “I can’t keep going back just telling them to search again,” he said. Repeatedly.

And then in March of this year, it magically appeared (see downloadable document below). A provincial-wide analysis using PharmaNet data had been completed months before I’d first asked to see one in 2009.

So now we know: Nearly half (47.3 percent) of seniors in long term care facilities in BC are taking antipsychotics. That’s close to double the US and Canadian average of 26 percent, and four times the rate of Hong Kong, which is at the low end of the spectrum.

“Do we have any answers…as to why BC has a higher use of antipsychotics in LTC [long-term care]?” wrote Darlene Therrien, a health ministry research and policy director who was wondering if a methodological error could be producing such huge BC numbers.

“I can’t see any issues in the data that would explain it,” emailed analyst Brett Wilmer. “I’m pretty sure it’s a health system phenomena…”

When I received these documents, I requested interviews. Ministry of Health spokesperson Ryan Jabs emailed back, “I can’t find a person from the program area who is comfortable speaking with media on this topic.”

So we’re left on our own to figure out what those BC health system “phenomena” are—and how dangerous they might be.

Read more.