The use of powerful anti-psychotic drugs for the elderly has increased sharply, prompting concerns that medicines are taking the place of trained carers.

The use of powerful anti-psychotic drugs for the elderly has increased sharply, prompting concerns that medicines are taking the place of trained carers.

Health professionals fear the 70 per cent rise in prescriptions for the over-60s in the year from 1999 indicate that the medicines are being used instead of more expensive specialist staff to care for older people with dementia.

The use of a so-called "chemical cosh" to control disturbed behaviour is believed to hasten a decline in health, according to the Government's National Service Framework for Older People.

Figures showing a rise of prescriptions from 252,700 to 428,800 in a year has backed up a belief that nursing homes are increasingly using the drugs to counteract staff shortages.

Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrat's spokesman on older people, called for new prescribing guidelines and investment in staff training.

The Alzheimer's Society has previously found that as many as one in five admissions to hospital of elderly people had stemmed from the misuse of medicines. It said that the anti-psychotic drugs should be used only as a last resort.

The Department of Health said it would carry out a detailed analysis of the results to work out the best way forward.

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