When patients, caregivers, doctors and pharmacists work as a cohesive care team, medication-related problems can be avoided, resulting in better health outcomes and improved daily functioning. The following tips will help seniors and their caregivers manage prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications responsibly.

Learn About Each Medication

Learn as much as possible about each medication that is being taken. Be sure to read the information pamphlets that come with prescription medicines. Ask the doctor and pharmacist any questions you may have about the drugs your loved one is taking and how you can help them manage their medication regimen. In addition to the name, dosing information and potential side effects, it is also important to understand why each one has been prescribed.

Questions to Ask About Medications

  • Why has this medicine been prescribed?
  • How does this medicine work in the body?
  • What are the most common side effects?
  • Are there any serious or rare side effects that I should be aware of?
  • Will this medicine interact with others that my loved one is taking now?
  • When will this medicine begin to work?
  • What should I do if my loved one misses a dose? What if they accidentally take more than prescribed?
  • Should my loved one take this medicine with food or water?
  • Are there other drugs, vitamins or supplements that my loved one should avoid while taking this medicine?
  • Are there activities that my loved one 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 my loved one have to take this medicine? Will we need a refill? How do I arrange that?
  • Do you have written information about this medicine that I can take home with me?

Have Complete Medical Records on Hand at Appointments

Make sure all health care providers have your loved one’s complete medical history on file. These records should contain information about surgeries, immunizations, test results, allergies and family health history. Records can be shared between health providers upon request.

Furthermore, all physicians on your loved one’s care team should have a current and complete list of all medications your loved one is taking. This list should include all prescribed and OTC medicines, vitamins, supplements, etc. Note the name of each drug, dosing information, reason for use, prescribing doctor and any cautions stated on the package. Always carry a copy of this list with you in your wallet or purse. This record will be invaluable in the event of an emergency, such as a serious drug interaction or overdose.

The average older adult takes multiple prescriptions each day. In addition, many seniors take various OTC medications, such as antacids, laxatives and pain relievers, without informing their physician. These drugs may interact with each other in the body and either not function as intended or cause adverse side effects, some of which may be life-threatening. Therefore, providing a complete medication list to all care team physicians is crucial.

Follow all Prescribing Directions

Taking medications as directed 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. Some medications may not be taken in conjunction with specific foods, drinks, supplements or other drugs. Other medications may have to be taken with food or a whole glass of water to minimize side effects like stomach upset.

Sometimes medicines affect seniors differently than younger people. Let the doctor know if a medication doesn’t seem to be working or if it is causing bothersome side effects. Never discontinue a medication or change dosages or timing without first consulting the prescribing physician. In addition, never share or give medications to another person.

Use Only One Pharmacist

If possible, fill all prescriptions at the same pharmacy. This ensures the pharmacist will be aware of all medications a senior is currently taking and allows them to screen for potential drug interactions, duplications and other medication-related issues. You can also consult the pharmacist about minimizing side effects, reducing prescription drug costs and finding appropriate OTC medication options.

Keep an Eye Out for Side Effects

Be sure to notify your loved one’s health care provider of any new or worsening side effects and lifestyle changes. This includes changes in sleeping patterns, work schedules and special diets. This will help the doctor determine if any adjustments must be made to the senior’s medication regimen. After a new drug has been added to their regimen, observe how your loved one reacts to it. Keeping a detailed record of their symptoms can help you and the doctor troubleshoot medication-related problems. If a senior’s symptoms seem unusual, severe or rare, contact their doctor, pharmacist or 911 immediately.

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Keep Medications in Their Original Packaging

To avoid confusion, keep all medications in their original containers with their original labels, prescribing information, dosing instructions and expiration dates. When a medication expires, discard the remnants and contact the prescribing physician for a refill if necessary.

Develop a Clear Medication Regimen

Many seniors need help managing their medications. Developing a routine for taking medications in a specific way at specific times of the day will help prevent skipped doses and overdoses. If you must provide medication reminders, use clear, simple language to help your loved one understand the kinds of medication(s) they are 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.” In some cases, it may be necessary to confirm that the medicine has been swallowed.

Caregivers who are helping seniors manage multiple medications may benefit from creating a medicine chart. This worksheet can help both patients and caregivers follow their daily medication regimen and check off doses after they’ve been taken to avoid confusion.

Work with Your Loved One’s Care Team

If your loved one has problems swallowing pills or spits out their medications, ask their physician if these medicines are 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 cut or crushed without first consulting a physician or pharmacist. When some medications are cut or crushed, they do not work correctly in the body and may be dangerous.

Get a “Brown Bag Checkup”

As a safety measure, ask to schedule a “brown bag checkup” with your loved one’s prescribing doctor or pharmacist. Place all medications, vitamins, supplements and over-the-counter products that your loved one is currently taking in a bag and bring them to the doctor or pharmacist so he or she can look for potential problems.

Be Prepared for Emergencies

Research pharmacies and care providers in your area to ensure you’re prepared for emergencies. Write down the names and contact information for a nearby 24-hour pharmacy and local emergency care providers that are open late and on weekends. Keep the number of your local poison control center or emergency room handy as well. If you suspect a serious medication issue, such as an overdose, call poison control or 911 immediately.