One of my most time-consuming and stressful tasks as a caregiver is managing multiple medications and supplements. Being responsible for getting my parents' prescriptions filled and doggedly ensuring there are no adverse drug interactions or side effects has been difficult. Tracking and sorting all of the pills, liquids, creams, nasal sprays and eyedrops — as well as administering them all — is exhausting. The key to medication-management survival? Organization!
A few tips:
Organize more than one week of pills at a time. Many years ago I helped my parents get set up with pill organizers (we call them pillboxes). That way Dad, who has Alzheimer's disease, and Mom could better track their daily intake. For a time, my dad filled the boxes; then my sister, Susie, filled them when it got too confusing and stressful for him. When I moved to Arizona seven years ago, I took over the task. I soon realized that by the time I got all the supplies out and filled one week's pillbox, it wouldn't take much more time to fill up a second week's. I now fill two months of pill organizers at once—a great time-saver that also makes for fewer shopping trips or online orders.
The biggest problem I've had with pillboxes through the years has been finding ones with individual compartments big enough to accommodate the plethora of pills my parents have required. Before she passed away, Mom took various drugs five times a day (at one time she had an alarming 23 medications), so I actually had to use two boxes for her — one with four compartments, as well as a small single-compartment box. Now I use a giant pill organizer for Dad, who takes pills twice a day: The first two rows are filled with one week's meds, and the second two, with the second week's. I fill four of those giant pill organizers at a time, for an eight-week supply.
Create and maintain an updated medication and supplements list. A comprehensive list ensures that you won't forget anything while filling the pillboxes and also helps any caregiver or emergency-response person easily find the information. In addition, I keep a copy in a folder that we bring for doctor's appointments or hospital visits. (Bonus: Doctors will be thrilled and impressed that you have all of this necessary information organized and available — I've received a lot of kudos from my parents' doctors over the years!)
I make a chart or spreadsheet, and the categories include:
- Name of medication or supplement and strength (e.g., 600 mg tablets)
- Prescribing doctor and phone number
- Purpose (such as blood pressure, thyroid, dementia, blood thinner, bone density or pain)
- Dosage (examples: 600 mg, 1x/day; 25 mg, 2x/day)
- Comments (such as the generic name, special instructions, whether the med is on auto-refill from their mail-order prescription company or the date I'll need to call to refill)
Take advantage of technology. While my pillboxes and medications list are my low-tech solutions, I use high-tech solutions, too:
- I make the medications list easily accessible at all times by creating it in a Word or Excel document on my computer. I then can access it on my smartphone or tablet via Dropbox. I also keep a copy in my Evernote app and another in a caregiving app I use. Some caregiving apps make the process easier by allowing you to add the information by simply scanning the medication bottles (but I like to add my notes and comments).
- You can now easily find amazing "smart" electronic pill organizers and dispensers that sound an alarm when it's time to take pills and that send notifications to caregivers when pills have or have not been taken. You can also set up motion sensors that will notify you when your loved ones go to their pill organizers.
- There are even robots that deliver medications in hospitals and facilities, so maybe one day we will all have one at home that can pop pills into our mouths!
The bottom line: Create a system (high- or low-tech) that works for you and your loved ones and ensures that the correct medications are being taken at the correct times. A little organization can save lives, ease pain and make everyone's life easier.
Amy Goyer is AARP's Family and Caregiving Expert and author of Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving. A recognized media authority, she has appeared on Today, The Doctors and Dr. Phil, and had interviews in The Wall Street Journal and People. Connect with Amy on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, LinkedIn, amygoyer.com and in our Online Community.