Medication Management For Seniors
Most older adults take a variety of daily medications, including both prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Some people take more than one dose at different intervals throughout the day. It is vital to take these medications correctly to manage your health conditions.
Medication regimens can be complex and sensitive. If someone forgets to take a medication, or they take it at the wrong time or with the wrong substance, then harmful health events may arise. Luckily, there are many resources and tools available to help people practice safe medication management. This guide will help you navigate common medication mistakes and how to organize medication for safe and easy prescription management.
Common Medication Mistakes
In the United States, Medication errors account for 1.3 million injuries per year. Medication mistakes happen anytime somebody fails to take their medication as directed, a surprisingly commonplace occurrence, especially when someone is taking multiple medications.
Here are a few common medication mistakes:
Location of your medicines
It is important to have all of your medications in one area, whether they are prescription or over-the-counter. You should have one drawer or cabinet that you keep all of your medications in so that you do not lose them and so that you have easy access to them. However, if there are medications you take only at bedtime, you can keep those by the nightstand. Please note: medications should be kept in a cool and dry place––never in the bathroom because moisture from the shower or bath can affect your medicines. (Keep in mind some medicines such as insulin require refrigeration.)
Taking too much (or not enough) medication can lead to harmful side-effects. In fact, improper dosing accounts for 60% of medication errors. Underdosing can leave you with improperly treated conditions such as pain or other ailments such as hypertension or heart conditions. Overdosing, on the other hand, can be deadly if someone takes too much of a certain drug without realizing it, especially medications such as blood thinners, sleeping pills, or anxiety medications. A good idea is that if your pills need to be split, then split them all at once before beginning the regimen so that you don’t forget and take too much later.
Those with memory impairment may be prone to this type of issue, as they may forget to take medication entirely or accidentally take too much of it. A pill organizer is a great way to keep track of this.
Mixing Up Medications
Prescription drugs can sometimes have similar names and packaging which may cause older adults to take the wrong medication. It is a good idea to leave them in their original packaging if they are store-bought so that you don’t mix them up.
Most medications are to be taken at certain times of the day: morning, noon, night, or with food or milk as to not upset your stomach. In particular, antibiotics can give you diarrhea because they also affect your normal gut bacteria. You should always take antibiotics with yogurt or probiotics, as these both contain good bacteria that will keep your gut healthy.
Always follow the instructions as to when to take your medicines so that they do not interact negatively with each other. Make sure your pharmacist and doctor go over all your medications with you to make sure they can all be taken together. There are also online drug interaction checkers you can use as well.
In no case should medication ever be taken with alcohol. Alcohol often reduces the effectiveness of medications and can even have life-threatening effects if combined with certain medications such as sleeping pills.
Expiration dates on medications mark the last day a manufacturer can guarantee potency. While the FDA found 90 percent of drugs are still potent and safe after the expiration date, it is important to see the doctor regularly and replenish medication to ensure it works as intended. Do not just assume the expired medication is still good.
Tip: Signs such as running out of medication pre-maturely or drowsiness may be a sign of improper dosing.
Reading Medication Labels
All medications, whether prescription or over-the-counter (OTC), have labels with information on how to safely take a medication. Make sure you understand the instructions and that they are very clear before you start a medication regimen. Some medicines require different doses on different days.
A prescription medication label includes the following information:
- The pharmacy the medication was purchased from
- The doctor who prescribed the medication and their contact information
- The medication brand-name, the generic name if applicable, and strength
- Instructions on how and when to take the medication
- Quantity, number of refills, and fill date information
- Warning labels and other precautions to ensure the drug is taken properly
The instructions for medication include how much to take, the time to take it, and the duration for which the patient must take the medication. Sometimes medications must be taken at a certain time of day with food. This information supplements any other directions the doctor provided when they wrote your prescription. If you have any questions about how and when to take your medication that is not explained on the label, then call your doctor or pharmacist.
Make sure your doctor and pharmacist know your allergies to medicines, even if they are minor such as itching. These can get worse with repeated dosing. In addition, some medications may have different names such as brand names that may not be very clear as to what is in them, and you may be allergic to it. Please note that nausea or stomach upset is NOT an allergic reaction; rather, they are side effects, and they usually pass with time and are easily treatable themselves.
Medication Warning Labels
Every prescription drug has federally-mandated warning labels. These labels are displayed prominently on the side or back of the bottle. These warnings include important precautions relating to the drug including harmful interactions. Some medications may make you drowsy, so a label may instruct you not to drive a car or operate heavy machinery after taking it. Other medications must be taken with food or they can cause an upset stomach.
Other warnings include instructions on potentially harmful interactions. For example, some painkillers such as Vicodin and Percocet contain acetaminophen. While this compound effectively treats pain and fever, it can damage the liver in high doses, so you should not mix it with other drugs that contain acetaminophen.
Refilling Your Prescription
Plan ahead so you do not run out. Refill information is another indicator to keep track of on your prescription bottle. Medication can only be refilled by the pharmacy so many times before you must request a new prescription from your doctor. If medication runs out, and there isn’t a new prescription, you may have to go without medicine until you refill the prescription, a potentially hazardous waiting period. If you cannot get a hold of your doctor, you can go to the emergency department or an urgent care clinic for short-term refills. Do not delay taking your medicines as this could be dangerous or even life-threatening.
Each prescription bottle has specific information on how to safely and effectively take medication. Even if you use a medication dispenser, keep the bottles on-hand so you do not lose the important information contained on these labels.
Organizing Your Medications
Organizing your medications can help you avoid errors, especially when you have multiple prescriptions. 85 percent of adults aged 60 and over are using at least one prescription medication daily. As long as medications are organized, it’s easy to avoid errors.
Keep Organized with a Medication Chart
To organize your meds, the first thing you should do is make a chart of the medications you take, the dosage, the time at which you take them, and other important information such as interactions with other drugs. This chart should also include any vitamins, supplements, and over-the-counter medications. Display this chart prominently where you generally store and take your medication.
Important Advice: Give a family member or a friend a copy of your medication chart so they can help you if you forget your medication regimen!
If you don’t like paper, there are also medication apps for medication schedules. Once you enter medication information into the program, the app sends medication reminders with associated dosages and instructions. Schedules can then be shared through the application with doctors, pharmacies, and caregivers. Some of these apps even send a reminder to caregivers or loved ones if the user ignores a reminder. Check with your doctor to see if he or she has one they prefer because it will make it easier for them to keep check on you too.
Most doctors now use “patient portals,” or apps/websites where patients can access their data, manage prescriptions, and even ask questions.
Pill organizers are another simple and effective tool with which to organize medications. A pill organizer has compartments labeled with each day of the week. Once per week, a patient will distribute their medication into compartments. Each day, the patient takes the contents of each container. These are especially useful for those with memory issues. These items are also inexpensive and simple to use. Some pill organizers even come with additional compartments for times throughout the day in case you have to take medications multiple times.
Organizing Tip: Include food and medication allergies on medication charts.
Automatic Medication Dispensers
Automatic pill dispensers are similar to pill organizers in that they store medications in compartments according to date and time. These devices, however, are set to automatically dispense the correct medication at a certain time. An alarm typically goes off when it’s time to take medication, though some newer models connect with cell phones to deliver notifications through an app. When not in use, the machines can often be locked, which prevents people from taking the wrong pills or from others accessing the contents.
These are useful for those who prefer high-tech options for greater peace of mind. Here are a few of my favorite automatic pill dispensers:
The Senior List Recommended Pill Dispensers
Tips for Medication Management
If you’re looking to start more effectively managing your medications, here are some solutions that are both quick and easy to implement.
#1 – Keep Medications In One Place
Store all medications in one highly visible location such as a nightstand or kitchen island. That way, you don’t lose any stray bottles or forget to take a medication. Make sure to also store medication in a temperature-controlled, dry place unless the medication label states otherwise. If there is more than one person in a household taking medications, clearly mark the medications so residents do not get them mixed up.
#2 – Try Blister Packs
Some pharmacies can deliver medications in blister packs, packages that contain medication pre-sorted by date and time. This can be a good option for those with many medications as they won’t come from the pharmacy in bottles, but instead in easy-to-use packaging with associated labeling. This saves time on organizing multiple medications and is often offered free of charge. Blister packs are especially useful for older adults with dexterity issues who may not be able to open prescription bottles.
#3 – Meet Regularly With Your Doctor
In order to avoid serious conditions and potentially costly emergency room visits, regularly consult your doctor on your medication regimen. If you add an over-the-counter medication, vitamins, or another prescription to your regiment, always consult your primary care physician.
#4 – Stick With One Pharmacy
Even though it can be convenient to fill prescriptions on the go, older adults with multiple medications should work with a dedicated pharmacist who is familiar with their specific medication regimen. This makes it easier to refill prescriptions and for pharmacists to spot harmful prescription combinations when a new drug is prescribed.
#5 – Keep an Updated Medication List
It can be hard to remember to go to the pharmacy every 30 days to pick up a medication, especially if you do not drive or have limited mobility. It is much easier to go only several times a year. You should also ask if they have delivery available.
#6 – Keep an Updated Medication List
Keep a highly-visible medication list in your home. A detailed list helps older adults remember which medications they’re taking, when to take them, what their interactions are, and when a refill is necessary. They also make a handy resource for new doctors, pharmacists, and caregivers so they can get up to speed quickly with medication regimens. And make sure a friend or a family member has a copy of this list too.
When a cycle of medication is completed or a medication expires, it must be disposed of properly. Too many unused half-empty prescription bottles around the house can be confusing and lead to accidentally taking the wrong medication.
According to the FDA, the best method for disposing of unused medication is to return it. The DEA has a database for drop-off locations for drop-off locations for unused prescriptions. Pharmacies may also be able to take back unused medication. Ask your pharmacist if they have a medication disposal receptacle or a mail-in program to safely dispose of drugs.
Medication can also be disposed of at home. Some medications should be flushed down the toilet, especially those that can be abused or may result in death if taken incorrectly. Other medications should be crushed, mixed with a substance such as dirt or cat litter, and thrown into the trash. This method ensures that your unused medication cannot harm others. When disposing of prescription bottles, be sure to scratch out all personally identifiable information to protect against potential identity theft. In no case should you ever give a friend or family member any of your medicine as it may harm them.
Medication management doesn’t have to be difficult. There are many technologies and resources available to make managing and organizing multiple prescriptions easy. Building mindful medication practices contribute to both your wellbeing and a longer, healthier life. Formulating a comprehensive medication management plan can save time, provide peace of mind, and ensure you are safe from medication errors.
Medication Management Frequently Asked Questions
- Are expired drugs safe to take?
While there are varying degrees of danger involved, you should not take medication past the expiration date. Expiration dates mark the last day the manufacturer guarantees full potency and safety for a certain medication. Injectable drugs in particular should be discarded if the liquid looks cloudy or has discoloration.
- What is a generic drug?
A generic medication has the same active ingredient and operates the same way as a brand-name drug. The only difference is that generic drugs are manufactured by a different company than name-brand drugs which often makes them less expensive. The FDA must approve generics so they are just as safe and high-quality as name-brand drugs. Prescription bottle labels will denote that a drug is generic and what the name-brand drug is called. Make sure you know both the generic and brand names so that you do not mix them improperly with other medications.
- How do I figure out interactions between over-the-counter (OTC) medications and my prescription drugs?
Most over-the-counter drugs do not have harmful interactions with prescription medications. However, always make sure to check all of the warnings on both the over-the-counter medication label and the prescription medication label to make sure there are no adverse interactions. You may also consult your doctor or pharmacist. There are online checkers as well.
- Can I still drink grapefruit juice with my medication?
Grapefruit juice can impact how certain medications work. Medications for high blood pressure and arrhythmias as well as blood thinners are especially affected by grapefruit juice. Talk to your doctor and check prescription labels to figure out if your medications negatively interact with grapefruit juice. Also, keep in mind that leafy green vegetables high in vitamin K such as spinach can affect medicines such as coumadin/Warfarin.
- What if I have to take a short dose of medicines such as antibiotics? Is it safe to take with my regular medicines?
Your doctor prescribed you an antibiotic for a very good reason. However, they can indeed interact with your other medicines, in particular blood thinners. Always let your doctor know which medicines you are already taking, particularly if you are in the emergency room or an urgent care clinic where the doctor may not know you.
- Can I dispose of all my unused medications in a prescription disposal drop-box?
Needles, asthma inhalers, mercury thermometers, illicit drugs, and medications that contain iodine may not be disposed of in drop-boxes.