Managing a Loved One’s Medicine Regime

“The shelf in her kitchen that once held travel souvenirs now held bottles of prescription medicine—at last count, nine bottles sat on the shelf. Mrs. L, at 84 years old, was taking water pills, high blood pressure pills, a couple different heart prescriptions, two prescription strength vitamins and something for her arthritis pain. Plus baby aspirin and a mild antidepressant. Her son color-coded the bottles so she’d know which pills to take at night and which to take in the morning. At her last checkup, the cardiologist prescribed a new drug, but forgot to tell her internist and somehow, the medication never made it onto her chart. Days later, she was feeling dizzy, nauseous, and unsteady. Her son raced her back to the cardiologist, who finally consulted the internist—who discovered that the new drug interacted with something she was already taking. When Mrs. L. stopped the new drug, her symptoms disappeared.”
– American Geriatrics Society Foundation for Health in Aging Journal, July 2011

MedicinesAccording to the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, each year 1.5 million people are either sickened or seriously injured because of a medication mistake, and 100,000 die. Older Americans are even more at risk. Over 40% of adults 65 and older take five or more medications, and one third of this group will experience and adverse side effect, which can cause serious health problems (Senior Care Corner). Medication management is crucial for keeping a loved one safe and healthy. Here are a few common mistakes and ways to avoid them.

Major Issues

One of the worst mistakes to make is to not know the correct name of a drug. A doctor’s handwriting may be hard to read, they could have been unclear on what the doctor had said, or the pharmacist could have made an error. Ask a loved one’s doctor for a list of their medications as well as what they are taken for, and make sure when they go to fill them, they make sure the pill looks the same (think shape, size, texture, and color) (Sageminder.com).

Many prescription and over the counter drugs can have dangerous interactions and intensify side effects. The best way to avoid a dangerous interaction is to talk to a doctor and review every drug being taken, both prescription and over the counter (include alternative medicines), as well as dosages. If the same side effect is listed for multiple drugs, ask the pharmacist or doctor about it.

Certain medications that are fine for younger adults to take can be unsafe after 65. There is a list of “Inappropriate Medications for the Elderly,” also known as the “Beers list” that the elderly should be aware of. Ask the doctor for alternatives to remove any of these drugs from a drug regimen.

It is easier for families when there is someone living close by to a loved one who can check in and see if medications are being taken properly. Unfortunately, that is not always an option if a loved one lives hundreds or thousands of miles away. Luckily, with today’s technology and resources, families can have better peace of mind that their loved one is taking the proper medications and dosages when they are not there to manage them.

There are now automated (telehealth) medication dispensers available that are more reliable than traditional compartmented dispenser boxes. These devices are coordinated with nurses, who can monitor ad control when doses are taken and when the unit needs refilling. In a trial reported by the Visiting Nurse Services of New York (VNSNY), 95% of participants gave the device high marks in ease of use and reliability. 84% said they would use the device beyond the trial (VNSNY). Automatic medication dispensers could save families the stress of worrying about their loved ones, and prevent mistakes common with seniors.

Tips for Caregivers

Home care agencies are also a great option for families to rely on. They can provide an extra person to help monitor medication and remind a loved one to take their medications on time. Families can adjust the hours they need someone for, and have them do routine checks for signs of medication problems as well as reminders to refill prescriptions.

Medication mistakes are common, but they are entirely preventable with education and precautions. Automatic dispensing systems or home care aides may be exactly what some families need, and all should be aware of the potential dangers of certain medications or combinations of medications.

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