Too many elderly Americans living in nursing homes are heavily sedated or given anti-depressants - the kind of medication that makes life worse for many of them, according to a Harvard Medical School study.

That kind of treatment is a sad commentary on society's ability to deal with its older citizens.The report is especially disturbing since a similar study done 10 years ago said that dangerous drugs were being over-used in nursing and doctors often overlooked better medications with fewer side effects.

If little has changed in a decade, what kind of future awaits the elderly people who make up an increasingly larger percentage of the population? Many of these elderly will spend their later years in nursing homes.

The Harvard study involved only intermediate-care facilities in Massachusetts, but the researchers said they were typical of such nursing homes around the nation.

Some 65 percent of the residents in the nursing homes studied had prescriptions for psychoactive drugs - the description for mood-altering medicines such as sedatives, anti-depressants, and sleeping pills. More than half the residents took such drugs regularly during the month.

Dr. Jerry Avorn, co-author of the study, said that giving elderly people such drugs may amount to using "chemical restraints" by short-staffed nursing homes. This can blunt the minds of the elderly and diminish their capacity to appreciate life.

In addition, the researchers say the side effects of such drugs can cause confusion, shakiness, disorientation, making the elderly person appear sicker than he or she really is.

Certainly, such medicines can be necessary in many cases, but two things clearly need to be done.

One is a better job of educating doctors about new drugs with less serious side effects than the powerful, long-lasting medications that are most frequently used. Like other people, busy doctors can get into habits of going with what is familiar and fail to keep up with the latest advances.

Second, friends and family of elderly residents in nursing homes ought to review the patient's drug list with the physician, paying particular attention to drugs that affect the central nervous system or have long-lasting sedative effects.

Just because nursing home residents are elderly, it doesn't mean they are simply to be warehoused. Mental stimulation and physical activity can do more to make life more meaningful and enjoyable for those of advanced years than simply taking pills that blur life around the edges.