Modern medicine can work wonders. However, in order to be effective, medicine needs to be taken safely, according to prescribing guidelines, and patients and health care providers need to be vigilant about the dangers of drug interactions. When it comes to medication use, seniors take more prescription and over-the-counter drugs than any other age group, and they are most likely to experience problems because of their medications.
The average American senior takes five or more prescription medications daily, and many of them can’t read the prescription label or understand the prescribing instructions, according to the National Council on Patient Information and Education.
“Unless they reside in a senior living community or have another form of assistance, it can be very difficult for seniors to manage their own medications,” says Kim Estes, senior vice president of clinical services for Brookdale Senior Living. “A lot of factors make medication management a challenge for seniors, including the sheer number of prescriptions many of them take in a day.”
While doctors prescribe medication to treat a range of chronic conditions from arthritis to diabetes and high blood pressure, seniors may find managing their medications difficult for multiple reasons:
- Many meds and many prescribers — Seniors who are on multiple medications are often prescribed to them by multiple doctors, who may or may not be aware of other medications the senior is already taking. Taking a large number of medications can increase the risk of a drug interaction that harms seniors’ health, rather than helps them.
- Adverse side effects — If a medication makes a senior feel ill, he or she may stop taking it.
- Lack of knowledge — If they don’t understand exactly what the medicine is supposed to do for them, seniors may feel they don’t need it and discontinue use.
- Physical challenges — Age-related physical challenges such as hearing or vision loss, dexterity issues or trouble swallowing can make it difficult for seniors to take their medications as prescribed.
- Cognitive challenges — Seniors with memory loss or dementia may forget to take their medications as prescribed.
- Cost — Even with Medicare and supplemental health insurance, many medications can come with a hefty price tag. Seniors may not be able to afford a medication their doctor prescribed.
Medication management made easier
“Fortunately, seniors and their caregivers can take some fairly easy steps to help them better manage their medications,” Estes says. “These steps take a little time and effort, but they can go a long way toward helping seniors use their medicines more effectively.”
- Most seniors take five or more medications a day, and those with severe health issues or who are in the hospital may take significantly more than that. Make a list of every medication you take, what it’s for, and what the pill actually looks like.
- Make a checklist of all your medications. Every time you take a prescription, note the date, time and dosage on your checklist.
- If you have trouble reading the labels on your prescriptions or can’t open the bottle, ask your pharmacist to provide your medicine in easy-to-open containers with large-print labels.
- Make a plan for getting your prescriptions. You may decide to schedule a drive to the pharmacy every month on a certain day or have someone drive you there. You may also find an online pharmacy that can deliver your prescriptions to your home.
- When you go to the doctor, take your list of prescriptions with you, especially if you’re seeing him or her for the first time. Your list will help the doctor know what medications you’re already taking.
- Work with your doctors to see if you can reduce the number of pills you take by consolidating medicines. For example, if you take a pill to reduce water retention and a medication for high blood pressure, some prescription drugs combine both types of medicine into a single pill.
- A study by the University of Arizona found that having a pharmacist on a senior’s care team helped keep seniors safer and improved their ability to take medications as prescribed. Keep all your prescriptions with one pharmacy and get to know the pharmacists who work there. Your pharmacist may be able to help you spot potential drug interactions.
- Technology can help you remember to take medications on time. Set an alarm on your cellphone or download an event reminder app on your smartphone to help you remember when it’s time to take your medicine.
“With a little planning and help, seniors and their caregivers can better manage their medications to ensure seniors get the most benefit out of their prescription treatments,” Estes says.