By Lisa M. Petsche
Seniors are the biggest consumers of prescribed and over-the-counter medications. On average they take five prescription medications and two over-the-counter ones.
Every medication carries some risk, due to potential mismanagement (known as non-compliance), as well as possible side effects, allergic reactions or interactions with other drugs, alcohol or food. Add to this the fact that older adults are generally more sensitive to drugs – owing to slower metabolisms and organ functions – and the potential for problems is even greater.
When improperly used, medications meant to help with health problems can actually cause them. Quality of life is reduced, and hospitalization and even institutionalization can result. The cost to individuals, in terms of well-being and independence, and also to the health system, can be high.
The following are tips to guide you in effectively managing your medications, or assisting a relative with this responsibility.
- Write out the daily medication schedule or ask the pharmacist for a chart to fill in. Keep it handy.
- Take medication at regularly scheduled times each day. Try coordinating it with regular activities, such as meal time (if they can be taken with food), a favorite television show or bedtime.
- When a new medication is prescribed, request the easiest possible dosing schedule. Post notes to yourself in prominent places, to help you remember the regimen until a routine is established.
- Consult the pharmacist regarding available aids and programs for organizing and remembering to take medications, such as logs, weekly pill boxes (known as dosettes), special blister packs and portable alarm systems.
Communicating with health professionals
- Share your complete health history whenever you visit a new physician. Bring a notepad and pen to record information and instructions.
- Use one pharmacy for all your medication needs.
- If you are unsure about the instructions on a label, or have any concerns regarding side effects, consult the pharmacist.
- Inform the doctor or pharmacist if medication doesn’t seem to be effective, or if unexpected symptoms appear.
- Talk to the pharmacist before using any over-the-counter medication, such as pain relievers, laxatives or heartburn remedies.
- Maintain an up-to-date list of all medications – prescription and non-prescription drugs as well as vitamins and herbal medicines – you are taking, including the dosage. Keep a photocopy with you. It’s also wise to keep a list of medications you can’t tolerate, and why.
- Inform the doctor and/or pharmacist if you smoke or drink alcohol, as this may alter the effectiveness of certain medications. Also advise of any known or suspected food or drug allergies.
- Advise the doctor if you are seeing other health care providers, and advise the pharmacist of prescription medications you’ve obtained elsewhere.
- Ask your doctor or pharmacist to regularly review your medications.
- Post doctors’ and pharmacy telephone numbers by the phone.
Choosing a Pharmacy
- When selecting a pharmacy, consider the following: hours of operation, dispensing fee, delivery service (preferably free), patient profiles, medication information sheets, and medication reminder programs (including cost).
- Before taking a new medication, thoroughly read the information sheet supplied by the pharmacist, as well as the medication label. If you have any questions, call the pharmacy to obtain clarification. Keep sheets together in a labeled file folder for easy reference. Carefully follow all instructions.
- If opening pill bottles is difficult, ask the pharmacist for easy-to-open caps.
- If you have visual problems, ask for large typing on labels, plus non-block letters. You might also want to request a duplicate, large-print label on a flat surface, such as a medication information sheet or a blank piece of paper. Ensure bright light and use a magnifying glass to check labels before taking medication.
- Ask the pharmacist’s advice before crushing or splitting tablets.
- Don’t cut short a course of treatment without consulting the doctor.
- Never share or borrow medicine.
- Keep medicine in its original container, away from heat, light and moisture (don’t store it in the bathroom), and out of the sight and reach of grandchildren.
- Store your meds separately from those belonging to others in your household.
- Never use medicine that is discolored or has an unusual smell; return it to the pharmacy. Also return any expired or no longer needed substances, to avoid inadvertently using them, and for proper disposal.
Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.