If you’re like most older adults, taking multiple medications is part of your daily life. About a quarter of people over 65, and half of people in their 70s take at least five prescription medications. The more medications you’re prescribed, the harder it is to take them properly. You also have a greater risk of negative reactions and interactions, which are responsible for thousands of emergency room visits and hospitalizations each year.
Medicine management is a critical part of living well with chronic illness. “Medications are important – we take them to treat disease and live longer,” says Susan Love, a nurse case manager at Amedisys Home Health in Harrogate, TN. “If we aren’t monitoring those medications and teaching patients how to take them appropriately, then we aren’t truly managing their disease.”
Expert Medication Management Tips for Seniors
Here are five common medication management issues for seniors, with expert tips from home health care professionals on how to address them.
Issue 1: “I don’t really need this medication.”
How to Address it: Ask questions.
It’s possible you don’t need a medication because, for example, another medication you’re taking serves the same purpose. It’s also possible that you need the medication, but don’t fully understand why. “Medication management is largely about education,” says Love. “When you know what a medication is for and how it helps you, you’re more likely to take it as directed.”
You can figure out if you need a medicine by asking the following questions any time a doctor gives you a new prescription:
- Why do I need this medication? What does it do?
- How do I know if it’s working?
- What are the pros and cons of taking this medication?
- Is there anything I can do that may prevent me from having to take this medicine?
- How often should I take it? At what time?
- Are there things I shouldn’t do or eat/drink while taking this medicine?
- How long will this medicine take to work?
- Am I taking the lowest effective dose?
- Is it okay to take this medicine with the other medicines I’m taking?
- When should I stop taking this medicine? Will I be on this medication for the rest of my life?
- What should I do if I forget to take my medicine?
- What side effects should I look for? What should I do if there’s a problem?
- Will I need to refill this medicine when it runs out? How do I do that?
- How should this medication be stored?
At each appointment, ask if the medication is working, if you still need it and if you’re still taking the correct dose. Do not stop taking a medication without clearing it with your doctor first.
Issue 2: “I’m afraid my medications will interact with each other.”
How to Address it: Make a list of medications.
Many older adults see several different doctors, who don’t know what the other is prescribing. To guard against harmful drug interactions, create a medicine log you can take with you to every doctor’s appointment and pharmacist visit. “Put it on the fridge for your caregiver and family members to read,” suggests Carolyn Erskine, Amedisys’ assistant vice president of nursing innovation. “And carry it with you so if anything happens, a first responder can see what you’re taking and care for you properly.”
Your list should include:
- Every medicine you take (both generic and brand names), including prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, dietary supplements and herbal remedies
- Reason for taking it
- Name of prescribing doctor
- How often you take it and at what dose
- How you take the medicine (by mouth, injection, under the tongue)
- Side effects
Visiting just one pharmacy can also cut the risk of drug interactions and double dosing on the same medication. “Find a good pharmacy that offers medication management support, like calling patients when a medication is due to be refilled,” Love recommends. “And use that pharmacy for all your prescriptions.” Be sure to tell your pharmacy if your doctor discontinues a medication so it doesn’t refill a medication that you no longer need.
Issue 3: “It’s confusing to know when to take each medication.”
How to Address it: Use tools to help you take the right medication at the right time.
Some medicines need to be taken with food or on an empty stomach. Some should be taken in the morning, and others at night. Many need to be refilled to avoid running out of medication. Timing it all can be complex. There are several tools that can help:
- Medication schedule – Ask your healthcare provider to help you create a manageable schedule. Perhaps some medications can be taken once a day instead of several times a day. You can use a chart or calendar to keep track.
- Pill box or medication planner – Get a loved one or healthcare provider to help you set up a weekly pill box or planner so you don’t have to fumble around with bottles or risk taking the wrong medication at the wrong time. Your medications will be organized and labeled by date and time.
- Blister packs – More pharmacies are starting to individually package and label each dose of medication, so you don’t have to sort and label your own medications. Your pharmacy may also be able to package all your morning medicines together and all your evening medicines together.
- Smartphone apps – If you have a smartphone, there are apps that can send you reminders when it’s time to take your medication so there’s less risk of forgetting.
If these tools don’t help you keep track of your medications, a family member or caregiver may be able to assist. They should have a list of all your medications and understand each drug’s dose, purpose and storage.
Issue #4: “There are too many side effects.”
How to Address it: Keep track and report side effects to your doctor.
“A lot of people stop taking their medication because they don’t like how it makes them feel,” says Erskine. “But there are often ways to minimize side effects if you pay attention to them, write them down and report them back to your doctor.”
You can also minimize side effects by taking medications as directed by your doctor. For example:
- Store them properly (some need a dark environment or to be refrigerated).
- Don’t drink alcohol or use illicit drugs (and if you do, tell your doctor so they can look for interactions).
- Don’t take medications prescribed for someone else (or share yours).
- Tell your doctor if you have any allergies.
- Take your medication with food or on an empty stomach, as directed.
Issue 5: “I can’t afford my medication.”
How to Address it: Ask about alternatives.
The cost of prescription drugs has forced many seniors to choose between medications and food. If you’re skipping medications because they’re too expensive, consider:
- Asking your doctor if you can switch to a cheaper medication or if samples are available
- Asking your pharmacy for alternate ways to get your medications
- Comparing prescription prices at pharmacies near you on smartphone apps like GoodRX
“Doctors often aren’t aware how much prescriptions cost,” says Tara White, a licensed practical nurse at Amedisys Home Health in Toccoa, GA. “In many cases, there’s a cheaper medicine that’s just as effective if you ask.”
Most older adults want to stay home and out of the hospital. Taking medications as directed may help you do this. If you need more support with medicine management, talk to your doctor. There are tools that can help, and you may be eligible for in-home nursing visits, occupational therapy and other services through a local home health care agency.