Family Living Focus: Keeping track of medications safely

The over 65 population in America purchases and consumes more medications than any other age group. They purchase more than 30 percent of all prescription medication and more than 40 percent of over the counter (OTC) medicines. Estimates are that as many as 90 percent of seniors use either herbal remedies or vitamins.


Drug interactions are especially a concern for seniors. Some experts estimate that seniors take an average of four to five medications on a daily basis. If physicians arenít aware of all medications a senior is taking, there is the potential for dangerous drug interactions.

To guard against an interaction, make a list of all medications, vitamins and herbal remedies that your loved one is taking. Also, beside each medication, write the contact information of the physician who prescribed the medicine. Some physicians may not realize how many other doctors their patients are seeing. Take this list to each doctor appointment and be sure that it is kept current.

Avoid Pharmacy Shopping:

With the rising cost of medications, many seniors choose to shop for the cheapest price without realizing the benefits of staying with one pharmacy. Poly-pharmacy, the ìtechnicalî name for pharmacy shopping, is often a source of confusion and drug interactions. The patient frequently overlooks the pharmacist as someone who can be of tremendous help to them. Pharmacists can often spot drug interactions, possible problems, and can possibly recommend OTC medications that can safely be taken with prescription medicines. Include the pharmacistís information on the medication list that you provide to each doctor. When doctors call in a prescription, make sure that they use the same pharmacy each time.

Throw Away Outdated Medicines:

Some people prefer to keep medications longer to save money on prescription costs. Donít. Some medicines degrade over time with exposure to light and heat. Plus, you may need a different medicine the next time. If you rely on medications you have at home instead of advice from your physician, you could be headed for trouble. Be sure to call your physician before using medication that you have at home.

A special word about antibiotics: These are meant to be taken in their entirety when they are prescribed. Saving some for the next infection may cause serious health problems. Bacteria may become resistant to antibiotics and need even stronger medication the next time. Plus, for the second infection, a different class of antibiotics may be used in order to prevent resistance build-up.

Watch for Side Effects:

Seniors especially can be sensitive to new medications. Ask your doctor about possible side effects of the medication and how it may react with other medicines that you are currently taking. Most pharmacies hand out leaflets with information about drug side effects and when to contact the doctor. Read these leaflets and keep them in a safe place for future reference, especially if you have to take the medicine long-term. Caregivers need to be aware of how to cross-reference these and hand-carry them to the doctor if necessary to be sure that the right medication is being prescribed.

Borrowing or Lending Medicine:

A concern for physicians is taking medication intended for someone else. This is a dangerous practice that needs to be eliminated. Prescription medication should never be taken by anyone else than for whom it was intended. Other individuals have special medical histories and may also be taking other medicines that can cause serious drug interactions. By the same token, never give away your old prescription medication.

What if medication is left over and you want to donate it? The best advice here is not to donate it. Most places canít accept medication donations and will only have to dispose of the medicine after you leave. If you think they may be able to use it, call ahead to find out. There are some outreach projects that are able to accept donated medications, providing that specific instructions are followed. Donít assume that the charity will be able to accept your medication (or medical supplies even) without checking with them first.

Skipping Doses:

Take each medicine as prescribed and donít skip doses to make the medication stretch further. Skipping doses can cause problems later when your condition isnít managed properly.

Check, Check, and Recheck:

Before taking a medication, double-check the label to be sure that you are taking it according to your doctorís instructions. Never rely on your memory, especially since seniors tend to take so many different medications. You may have several medications with similar names and a medication mistake can be costly.

Also, make sure youíre giving the correct dosage. If there are instructions for ìweaningî off a medication, be sure to follow these exactly. †Medications like oral steroids may have serious side effects if not taken correctly when you are trying to stop a medication that may have been taken long-term.

Are you taking the medication correctly? Is it an oral medicine or is it an injectable medicine? An oral medicine that is accidentally injected could have painful, if not lethal consequences.

Finally, make sure youíre giving the medicine at the right time. There is generally a two hour window of time that a medicine can be given. This window starts one hour before the medicine is prescribed and ends one hour after its time. For example, if a medicine is prescribed at 2 p.m., you can usually start giving it at 1 p.m. up until 3 p.m. During this window, you can usually take the prescribed dosage without harmful side effects. To be sure that the window of time applies to your situation, check with your doctor or pharmacist.

Seniors may have problems with feeling in the tips of their fingers and may have difficulty feeling the pills in their hands. Watch for medicines on the floor around the area where they generally take their medicines. If there are several pills on the floor or on the cabinet, it could be a sign that they are dropping one of their pills and not getting the medication they need. Caregivers can develop a system where they watch them take medicines or even administer the medications themselves.

Taken properly, all medications have their purpose. Determining the best way for your loved one to take medicines may take some work and documentation on your part in order to develop the right management system for your household and comfort level. Be sure to check with your loved oneís physician and pharmacist if you suspect a problem or need additional information.


Information from article in Todayís Caregiver, December 19, 2013 — Issue #672.

If you would like more information on ìKeeping Track of Medications Safelyî feel free to contact Gail Gilman, Family Life Consultant, M.Ed., C.F.C.S. and Professor Emeritus — University of Minnesota at Be sure to watch for more Family Living Focus’ information in next weekís paper.