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A Survival Guide to Medication Management

It's crucial for caregivers to stay organized when juggling multiple meds

A woman standing in front of a medicine cabinet full of medication and holding a prescription pill bottle

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One of my most time-consuming and stressful tasks as a caregiver was managing multiple medications and supplements for my parents.

Being responsible for getting their prescriptions filled and doggedly ensuring there were no adverse drug interactions or side effects was difficult. Tracking and sorting all of the pills, liquids, creams, nasal sprays and eyedrops, and administering them all, was exhausting.

How did I survive? By finding practical ways to organize and track it all. Here are my top tips for making medication management easier.

Organize for more than a week

Many years ago I helped my parents get set up with pill organizers so that Dad, who had Alzheimer's disease, and Mom, who'd had a stroke, could better track their daily intake. For a time, Dad filled the boxes; my sister Susie filled them when it got too confusing and stressful for him.

When I moved to Arizona to care for my parents, 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 didn't take much more time to fill up a second week. Eventually I was filling two months’ pill organizers at a time — a great time-saver that also made for fewer shopping trips or online orders.

The biggest problem I've had with pillboxes through the years has been finding a type that had individual compartments big enough to accommodate the plethora of pills my parents took.

Before she passed away, Mom took various drugs five times a day (at one time she had an alarming 23 medications, which I whittled down). I actually had to use two boxes for her — one with four compartments, plus a small, single-compartment box.

For Dad, who took pills twice a day, I used giant pill organizers with four rows. Each two rows held a week's meds. I'd fill four of those mega-organizers at a time, for an eight-week supply.

Another time-saving option is presorted pill packets delivered directly from a pharmacy. Most of the major chains offer a 30-day supply, with each packet containing all pills to be taken with each dose.

There are also many technology-based pill organizers and dispensers that can help you plan (see below).


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Create and maintain a list of meds

With a comprehensive list, it's less likely you'll forget anything while filling the pillboxes. It also helps ensure that any additional caregivers or an emergency-response person can easily find the information.

I recommend making a chart or spreadsheet, with at least these categories:

  • Name of medication or supplement, and the strength (e.g., 600 mg tablets)
  • Prescribing doctor's name and phone number
  • Purpose (blood pressure, thyroid, dementia, blood thinner, pain, etc.)
  • Dosage (for example: 600 mg, 1x/day; 25 mg, 2x/day)
  • Comments (such as the generic name, special instructions, refill dates or auto-refill information)

I kept a copy of my list in a folder to bring for doctors’ appointments or hospital visits. (Bonus: Medical staff will be thrilled and impressed that you have all of this necessary information at your fingertips. I received a lot of kudos from my parents’ doctors over the years!)

Take advantage of technology

Pillboxes and medication lists were my low-tech solutions, but I used some high-tech solutions, too.

I made the meds list easily accessible at all times by creating it as a Word or Excel file on my computer, which I could access on my smartphone or tablet via a cloud storage app. (I used Dropbox, but there are several other free options.) I also kept a copy in my Evernote app and another in a caregiving app I used.

Some caregiving apps make the process easier by allowing you to add information about pills by simply taking a photo of the medication bottles (although I prefer to be able to add my notes and comments).

There are also amazing smart electronic pill organizers and dispensers that sound an alarm when it's time to take pills and send notifications to caregivers when meds have or have not been taken. Some of these devices hold multiple weeks at a time, but they may be limited to a certain number of pills in each dose.

Prices range from about $15 for a simple pill organizer with alarms to more sophisticated dispensers that cost between $150 and $1,500. You can also set up motion sensors that notify you when your loved ones go to their pill organizers.

There are even robots that deliver medications in hospitals and long-term care 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-tech, low-tech or a combination of both, 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. Connect with Amy on amygoyer.comFacebookTwitter, in AARP's Online Community and in the AARP Facebook Family Caregivers Group.

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