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Be Smart About Medicine

Tips to manage multiple medications for someone in your care

Variously colored capsules, a blister pack of pills, plastic bottles with child-resistant caps, and a glass of water

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When I was young, my mother told me, "Never put anything in your mouth if you don't know what it is." Unfortunately, millions of Americans age 50+ do that every day. They consume a host of over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs, hoping to get relief from acute and chronic health conditions.

We are lucky to be living at a time when medicines can help us live longer. However, they only work if we use them wisely.

Knowledgeable use of medications is particularly important for older people, most of whom are susceptible to complications from overmedication. Studies show that older people take more medicines than any other age group. Ninety percent of people age 65+ take medication daily, and nearly half of those take five or more drugs. What's more, older adults experience the most significant problems from the improper use of medicine. They are at increased risk of dangerous drug interactions and, sometimes, cognitive impairments that can affect daily activities, such as driving.

Problems with medication management are the primary reason that people can no longer live on their own. Some older residents are in nursing homes because of medication errors, and many patients are readmitted to hospitals within 30 days of discharge because of drug interactions or not properly following prescription instructions. These problems account for approximately $15 billion dollars of health care system costs.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Everyone can use prescription and over-the-counter medications safely and effectively. If you are taking care of a friend or loved one who takes multiple prescriptions, there are ways for you to help the person better track and manage his or her medications. Use the tips below to help your family members become better medication managers. Their health will benefit, and their wallets may benefit, too!

Personal-Medication Record

Personal-Medication Record tracks all of the medications someone takes. Here's how you can help your family member develop one:

  1. List every medicine your loved one takes, including over-the-counter drugs, prescription creams, and drops.
  2. Make sure the list includes things like aspirin, vitamins, or other supplements that your family member takes occasionally or even daily.
  3. After listing the medicines the person takes and the times he or she takes them, make copies of the personal-medication record.
  4. Give a copy to a conscientious loved one or to a trusted neighbor, and post a copy of the record at home.
  5. Update the personal-medication record regularly.

Once you compile a personal-medication record, you need to put it to use.

At the Doctor's Office

Make sure your loved one takes the personal-medication record and, beforehand, writes down questions to ask during doctors' appointments. The written questions and medication record will help your loved one to remember to talk about what's important to him or her. In some cases, it may be useful or necessary to attend the doctor's visit with your loved one, to ensure clear communications between doctor and patient.

  1. Be sure that your loved one's updated personal-medication record lists all of the prescription and over-the-counter medicines the person takes, including herbal and dietary supplements.
  2. Confirm names of drugs and dosages with the loved one's doctor. Be sure your family member understands how, when, and for how long he or she should take the medication. Ask him or her to write down the information and to read the notes back to the doctor. This way, you will know your loved one clearly understands the instructions.
  3. Remind your loved one to ask the doctor whether there are safe and effective, alternative medicines that meet the same needs at a lower cost.
  4. Make sure your loved one asks the doctor or nurse to explain what the drug does and what its potential side effects are. Have your loved one ask if he or she needs lab tests to determine how the drug is working in the body.

At the Pharmacy

  1. Be sure your loved one brings his or her personal-medication record, along with the new prescription, to the pharmacy. If the pharmacy keeps a list of the medicines the person takes, ask your loved one to request a copy to make sure the information is current.
  2. Remind your family member to pause before signing for the prescription. The signature confirms that the pharmacist offered counseling and the recipient is declining the counseling. If the loved one would like to talk to a pharmacist, encourage him or her to let the clerk or the pharmacist know that he or she has questions and wants counseling, before signing for the medicine.
  3. Remind your loved one to check the drug's name and directions when he or she receives the prescription, to be sure they are the same as what the doctor ordered.
  4. Ask your family member to confirm the Rx directions with the pharmacist. Be sure the loved one asks about food-drug interactions, alcohol-drug interactions, and necessary monitoring tests. Remind the patient to give the pharmacist an updated list of medications, so the pharmacy can check for possible interactions, too.

If you help your loved ones follow the simple steps outlined above, they can avoid needless medical problems. About 1.5 million adverse drug events occur annually in the United States—thousands result in fatalities—and many of them are entirely preventable.

And, finally, also remember the helpful tips for home, listed below.

At Home

  1. Suggest the use of a pill organizer to take the guesswork out of taking pills and to help make sure your family member has taken all pills on time.
  2. Check in to make sure that your loved one fills the organizer once a week. Many have both a.m. and p.m. sections for each day.
  3. Read carefully the documentation that comes with the medicine. It has important information about warnings, dosage, side effects, and storage.

Take the simple steps outlined here, and you'll have greater assurance that the medications your loved ones take are doing what they were intended to do. Everyone in your family or circle of friends will sleep better with that confidence. And remember, Mother knows best: "Never put anything in your mouth if you don't know what it is."

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