When patients, caregivers, doctors and pharmacists function as a team, medication-related problems can be avoided, contributing to better health outcomes and improved daily functioning. Below are some tips to help you manage a loved one's medications (and your own).

Understand the Medication

Find out as much as possible about every medication: the name, dosage, frequency and side effects. Understand why it has been prescribed, and ask the doctor to write down instructions for its use.

Have Complete Medical Records

Make sure to provide complete medical records to your loved one's health care providers. Medical history records should contain surgeries, immunizations, allergies and family health history (i.e. diabetes, colon cancer). Records can be sent by a previous provider if needed.

Follow the Directions

Following the directions of the medication is imperative to ensure safety. Read all instructions carefully. Dispense only the recommended dosage at prescribed times and finish the entire prescription if instructed to do so. There may be foods, drinks, supplements or other drugs to avoid while taking the medicine. Certain medications may have to be taken with food or a whole glass of water.

The average older adult takes multiple prescriptions each day. In addition, many elderly people take various over-the-counter medications, such as antacids, laxatives or pain-killers, which are often used without informing their physician. The drugs may conflict and interact poorly with each other – basically going to war against each other in the body, leading to serious side effects and even life-threatening conditions.

Use Only One Pharmacist

Fill all prescriptions at the same pharmacy. This way, the pharmacist will be aware of all medications your parent takes, and can look out for potential drug interactions.

Make a List of All Medications

Make sure that every physician involved with your loved one's care knows about all prescribed and over-the-counter medications. Ask the physician to check for possible drug interactions. Keep a detailed list including the drug name, size of dosage (usually in milligrams) recommended dosage (daily, for example), and any cautions stated on the package. Carry a copy of this list with you in your wallet or purse at all times. This record will be invaluable in the event of a serious drug interaction or overdose. Share the lists with your doctors. Also, use the same pharmacy to fill all prescriptions, so the pharmacist can keep an eye out for dangerous interactions.

Watch for Social or Physical Changes

It is also important to notify the health care provider of any social changes, including sleeping patterns, work schedules, and special diets. This will assist the health care provider in determining if it is necessary to adjust the medication. After the drug has been administered, watch how your loved one reacts to it. If symptoms seem unusual or rare, contact an emergency number immediately.

Don't Self-Treat

Sometimes medicines affect older people differently than younger people. Let the doctor know if the medicine doesn't seem to be working or if it is causing problems. It is best that your loved one not to stop taking the medicine on his or her own. Under no circumstances should your loved one change dosages or stop taking the medication without first consulting the physician. In addition, never share or give medications to another person.

Keep Drugs Separate

Keep medications in their original containers. Do not mix different medications together in one container. This will avoid mix-ups.

Watch Expiration Dates

When a medication reaches its expiration date, discard whatever is left in the bottle. Contact your physician for a refill if necessary.

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Be Candid and Direct

Use clear, simple language to help your loved one understand the kinds of medications he or she is taking and why. In addition, offer clear instructions such as, "Here's the pill for your high blood pressure. Put it in your mouth and drink some water."

Develop a Routine

Giving medications in a specific way at specific times of the day will help reduce conflicts. Never assume the individual will take medications on his or her own. It may be necessary to check and see whether the medicine has been swallowed.

Adapt to the Person

If your loved one has problems swallowing pills or spits out the pills, ask your physician if the medication is available in some other form, such as a liquid. Some medications can be crushed and mixed with food. However, no pill or tablet should be crushed without first consulting your physician or pharmacist. Crushing some medications may cause them to be ineffective or unsafe.

Get a "Brown Bag Checkup"

As a safety measure, ask to schedule a "brown bag check-up" with your prescribing doctor or pharmacist. Gather all current medications and over- the-counter products into a brown bag and bring them to the doctor or pharmacist so he/she can look for potential problems.

Be Prepared for Emergencies

Research the names and telephone numbers of pharmacies and emergency care centers that are open on the weekends. Keep the number of your local poison control center or emergency room handy. If you suspect a medication overdose, call poison control or 911 immediately.

Questions to Ask About Medications

  • Why is this medicine prescribed?
  • How does the medicine work in the body?
  • What are the common side effects? What should I pay attention to?
  • Will this medicine interact with other medications—prescription and non-prescription—that my loved one is taking now?
  • When will the medicine begin to work?
  • What should I do if my loved one misses a dose?
  • Should he/she take it with meals?
  • Does he/she need to drink a whole glass of water with it?
  • Are there other drugs he/she should avoid while taking this medicine?
  • Are there activities he/she should avoid while taking this medicine?
  • Are there any foods that interact with this medication?
  • Is it safe to drink alcohol while on this medicine?
  • How long will he/she have to take the medicine? Will we need a refill? How do I arrange that?
  • Do you have written information about the medicine that I can take home with me?