Rest homes forced to sedate dementia patients due to lack of psychiatrists

by Raj Das

The Mental Health Crisis: Lack of Resources and Care for Elderly Patients

The mental health system in New Zealand is under severe strain, particularly when it comes to treating elderly patients with severe mental illnesses. A recent survey conducted by the College of Psychiatrists revealed that 94 percent of respondents believed that the current resourcing for mental health was inadequate and that the system was not fit for purpose.

One of the distressing consequences of this lack of resources is that some care facilities have had to resort to sedating elderly residents with severe mental illnesses. With a scarcity of psychiatrists available to treat them, these care facilities have no other options to manage the challenging behaviors exhibited by these patients. This is an alarming situation that highlights the urgent need for improvement in the mental health system.

Bronwyn Copeland, spokesperson for geriatric care and chair of the subcommittee for psychiatry of old age, explained that the shortage of appropriate facilities means that many elderly individuals are left to be treated “in the community.” This often places the burden of care on the shoulders of their elderly partners, who may not have the necessary expertise or resources to provide adequate care. Alternatively, these individuals may be placed in rest homes that lack specialist staff and resources.

In some cases, rest homes have been left with no alternative but to administer “dangerous and unnecessary” medications to manage the symptoms of these elderly patients. These symptoms can include distress and aggression, which pose significant challenges for both the patients and the staff. Moreover, elderly patients with dementia are sometimes housed in general psychiatric inpatient units, which can be a detrimental and non-therapeutic environment for their well-being.

The inadequacy of resources and beds has far-reaching consequences. Patients end up staying longer in general hospitals, causing them to become physically unwell and more susceptible to other illnesses. This not only strains hospital services but also represents a poor utilization of resources. The situation is particularly disheartening considering that these elderly individuals have contributed to society throughout their lives and deserve better care and support.

In Southland, the situation is dire, with the region’s only psychogeriatric specialist highlighting the lack of available inpatient beds for dementia patients needing assessment. Dr. Daniel Allan, who works three days a fortnight in Southland, explained the increasing workload and decreased capacity for admissions due to the shortage of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. The result is an elevated level of risk in patient care and the need to explore alternative solutions that do not involve inpatient beds.

Tragically, only a small fraction of severe elderly mental health patients in Southland have been able to find beds and treatment in the region. The rest have to be transferred to other areas, often far from their loved ones. This adds to the emotional burden these patients and their families already face. The situation in Southland serves as a warning sign, indicating that if action is not taken, larger metropolitan centers will soon face the same dire circumstances.

The mental health crisis in New Zealand, particularly concerning the care of elderly patients, demands immediate attention and action. Increasing resources, including more specialized facilities and a larger workforce of psychiatrists and mental health professionals, is crucial. Providing adequate care for these vulnerable individuals is not only a matter of compassion but also a reflection of society’s commitment to respecting and honoring the contributions of our elderly citizens. It is time to prioritize mental health and ensure that no one is left behind or forgotten.

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