For elderly people, medications can be a lifeline to good health...or a disaster waiting to happen. When doses are skipped, or too much medication is taken, the results can be deadly.

Medication problems are widespread. According to the Department of Health and Human Services:

  • 55 percent of the elderly are "non-compliant" with their prescription drugs orders, meaning they don't take the medication according to the doctor's orders.
  • Approximately 200,000 older adults are hospitalized annually due to adverse drug reactions

There are many reasons why seniors don't take their medications as prescribed. Here are some common causes of medication mistakes, and what to do about them.

Vision Problems

For elders who have vision problems, not being able to read small print on labels or distinguish between pills can lead to potentially dangerous misuse.


  • Ask for Large Print. If your parent has vision problems, ask the pharmacist for medications labels in a larger print size.

Memory Loss

Elders who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer's disease may simply forget to take their medications, causing them to skip doses. The opposite is also true: if they can't remember whether they took their medication, they might take it again, causing overdose.


  • Use a Pill Organizer. There are many types of products available: computerized pill box dispensers that ring a designated number if the pills have not been taken, watch alarms and necklaces that ring a reminder.


Low-income elders, or those on fixed incomes, may not have the money to buy the medications they need. Some will split pills or cut back on the prescribed dose; others will go without for long stretches of time with no medication.


  • Use Generics. Generic drugs are the same medications as their brand-name counterparts, but are less expensive. Ask if a generic alternative is available.
  • Find Financial Assistance for prescription medication. Research Prescription Assistance Programs. Also, ask your pharmacy about discount programs that are available. Go to the drug manufacturer's website, to see if discount programs are available. And look for low-cost prescription savings plans.
  • Visit Benefits to find out if your parent is eligible for financial assistance or prescription savings plans.

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Swallowing Problems

Some seniors have trouble swallowing medication tablets or capsules due to health conditions. They try to chew, crush, break or mix the tablet or capsule in food or drink. This can cause a negative effect because some are long-acting medicines that will be released too fast. Other medicines either will not work properly or could make the person sick.


  • Don't Crush Pills. Never chew, crush, break or mix the tablet or capsule in fluid unless the doctor or pharmacist says it is all right to do so.
  • Ask for Liquids. If your parent has trouble swallowing medicines, ask the doctor or pharmacist if the drug comes in a liquid.

Hearing Loss

Hearing loss can impede an elderly person's ability to hear instructions that the doctor or pharmacist is saying.


  • Get Instructions in Writing. If your parent has trouble hearing, talk to them about not being embarrassed about their hearing loss. If they can't hear what the doctor or pharmacist is saying, ask them to repeat it.
  • Use hearing devices. Make sure your parent wears their hearing aid to doctor's appointments and pharmacies.

Social Isolation

Many elderly people live alone. Several studies have shown that people who live alone more often fail to comply with medication regimens.


  • Get In-Home Help. If your parent lives alone, consider home health care. Tell the agency that your parent needs help with taking their medications, and inform the agency of the elder's required medication schedule.