Most assisted living communities provide residents with medication management services, which can be helpful if family members live far away or cannot check on aging loved ones regularly. For seniors who live at home, understanding steps to managing medications effectively can help keep them safe.
Why medication management is essential for seniors: avoiding medication errors
You may have become used to seeing multiple bottles of pills or other medications on your aging parent’s cabinet or counter, but polypharmacy — the regular use of five or more medications — can pose a serious health risk to seniors. Each year, about 350,000 people are hospitalized after visits to the emergency room because of adverse, or harmful, drug events, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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Medication management is an important preventive measure to avoid potentially serious health hazards in seniors. Older adults often take multiple medications, vitamins, and supplements to treat different symptoms and health conditions, which can increase their risk of medication mix-ups. In some cases, these simple mistakes can become dangerous and even fatal.
Other factors that increase the risk of health problems related to medication mismanagement in older adults include:
Cognitive conditions, including memory problems
Multiple chronic diseases
Seeing multiple doctors
Not having a primary care doctor to coordinate care
Mental health conditions
Health problems related to medication mismanagement in older adults are often caused by:
Drug interactions Certain medications cannot be taken together or with specific foods or drinks. For example, some medications cannot be taken with alcoholic drinks or citrus fruits because it alters their effects.
Health conditions Seniors who have different health conditions or see multiple doctors may be prescribed more medications than they need if their care is not carefully monitored. Mental illness or memory problems can also lead seniors to take more medicine than they need.
Falls and fractures Taking multiple medications may increase the risk of hip fractures in the elderly. It also significantly raises the risk of falls in older adults, regardless of medication type.
Discontinuation of treatment Older adults may unintentionally forget to follow their doctor’s directions. Others who take several medications may deliberately choose to not fill prescriptions, skip doses, or discontinue treatment for financial reasons as the cost of prescription drugs continue to rise.
Taking multiple medications: How much medicine do seniors take?
About 80% of older adults regularly take at least two prescription medications, and 36% regularly take at least five prescription drugs, according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine. These rates are higher when over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, and supplements are included. Seniors in nursing homes are prescribed an average of seven to eight drugs regularly.
These numbers make it easier to understand why polypharmacy is a growing problem as the U.S. population ages. However, there are steps you can take to help your loved one get organized and practice better medication management.
10 effective medication management tips for seniors
Follow these tips to help your aging parent prevent medication-related health hazards:
Review your aging loved one’s medications with their doctor. Write down the names and dosages of all medications they take and how frequently they take them. Include over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, and herbal supplements, too. If your parent sees multiple doctors, it may be helpful to write down who prescribed each medication and what it treats.
Go over this list at your next appointment with your parent’s primary care doctor. The more information your loved one’s doctor has, the more accurately they can pinpoint any potential adverse effects or drug interactions.
Ask questions and read medication labels If your parent is starting a new drug, ask the doctor questions, such as how and when to take it, and if it should be taken with or without food. Read the medication label thoroughly to understand dosages and learn about important interactions and side effects. Reading medication labels is important for both prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications. If you have any questions, call your loved one’s doctor or pharmacist.
Learn about possible drug interactions In addition to reading medication labels, ask your loved one’s doctor if certain drugs on their list shouldn’t be taken together. Note that over-the-counter drugs and herbal supplements may also interact with some medications, so include those when reviewing your list.
Understand potential side effects Ask the doctor about possible side effects before your parent starts taking a new drug. Check in with your loved one, and ask if they’ve noticed any differences in how they’re feeling since starting the new medication. Certain drugs may affect seniors in different ways, including changes in weight, sleep patterns, hunger, or balance. Tell the doctor if your parent is experiencing any side effects.
Ask if the dosage is age-appropriate The way the body processes various drugs changes with age. This means seniors can be more or less sensitive to certain medications. They may also experience adverse effects. Double-check with your loved one’s doctor or pharmacist to ensure that the dosage on the prescription is appropriate for their age. Also ask if they recommend starting with a lower dose.
Be aware of medications deemed unsafe for seniors The Beers Criteria for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults, put together by the American Geriatric Society, is a list of medications that older adults should avoid or use with caution. Some pose a higher risk of side effects or interactions, while others are simply less effective. For instance, older adults may need to avoid commonly prescribed sedatives like diazepam (Valium). Ask your loved one’s doctor or pharmacist if any of their medications are on the caution list.
Make your loved one aware of the dangers of self-prescribing Your aging parent may be tempted to increase the dose of a certain medication, or they may decide to take their medication more frequently to treat a symptom faster. Or they may add an over-the-counter drug to their list of medications to get quicker relief. Self-medicating increases your loved one’s risk of overmedication and drug interactions that can cause serious harm to their health. If a medication is not providing the expected relief, it’s always safer to call the doctor and ask for advice.
Monitor for medication compliance Medications only work if taken consistently and as directed by the doctor. If your aging parent is simply forgetful or is having trouble tracking their medications, a reminder system may be helpful. But those with a cognitive impairment, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, need to have their medications carefully managed and monitored. When taken incorrectly, medications can be harmful or even fatal.
Minimize the number of doctors and pharmacists you use Having a primary care provider, such as a family physician or geriatrician, can help make care coordination easier as they establish good communication with other specialists. It’s also best to get all your parent’s medications from one pharmacy to add another level of review, help ensure appropriate dosage, and reduce the risk of adverse drugs effects and interactions.
Help your loved one organize their medications If you or your loved one need extra help staying organized, there are plenty of tools and devices to keep you on track. There are mail-order pharmacy services, such as PillPack, which organizes and manages medications for you. Many families find “smart”, or tech-enabled, pillboxes and dispensers to be helpful, along with reminder apps. Shop around for options to help your loved one stay safe when managing their medications.
Angelike Gaunt is a content strategist at A Place for Mom. She’s developed health content for consumers and medical professionals at major health care organizations, including Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the University of Kansas Health System. She’s passionate about developing accessible content to simplify complex health topics.