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Medication management for people with disabilities

One in four adults in the U.S. has a disability, many of which take meds to manage chronic conditions. Use these medication management tips to avoid dangerous errors.

Even when people want to do everything they can for their health, there can be barriers that get in the way. One in every four U.S. adults has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Plus, many people with disabilities are also managing chronic conditions or other illnesses. If you have a disability and you’re taking medication, you’re certainly not alone. That’s why we created this guide.

First and foremost, your healthcare provider can help you navigate your care and make decisions that fit your lifestyle and goals. The right approach to medication management empowers you to get the most benefit from your prescriptions and take charge of your healthcare alongside your healthcare team.

Of course, your medicine only works if you take it. For some people, it’s helpful to have outside ideas and resources that can make medication management a little easier.

How to use this guide

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always go to your healthcare team first rather than delay taking medication. Whether you are reading this for yourself or for a friend or loved one, this guide is designed to provide you with information about medication management, storage, label reading, and more.

It’s not, however, intended to replace a physician or a pharmacist’s advice. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about any questions or concerns you have.

How to read medication labels

With any new prescription or over-the-counter medicine, it’s important to take time to completely review your medication label for vital information such as dosage, interactions, timing, and any other details you’ll need to know.

8 Parts of a Prescription Label

Medication labels may differ depending on the pharmacy, but they normally have eight different types of information.

  1. Information about the pharmacy: The name, address, and contact information for the pharmacy that filled the prescription.
  2. Your information: Here, you’ll find the name and address of the person to whom the medicine is prescribed.
  3. Information about the prescribing doctor: The doctor or other healthcare professional who wrote the prescription is listed here along with their contact information in case you (or the pharmacy) has any questions.
  4. Medication name and strength: The drug’s brand name, chemical make-up, or generic name, and how strong one unit of the medicine is. Medicine strength is typically listed with a measurement such as milligrams (mg).
  5. Instructions: Read these instructions carefully to learn how to take your medication. If you have any questions or concerns, be sure to ask your pharmacy or your doctor. Medication instructions usually say how to take your medicine, how often, and when. For instance, your instructions may say “take one tablet by mouth twice a day in the morning and night,” or “apply to the affected area as needed up to five times per day.”
  6. Prescription information: The date your doctor prescribed the medication, the date your prescription was filled at the pharmacy, the number of pills or doses included, how many times you can refill your prescription, your medication’s expiration date, and the number your pharmacy assigned to your prescription.
  7. Drug manufacturer information: The name of the company that manufactured your medication and a physical description of the medicine’s form, such as a tablet, injectable liquid, cream, or other type of drug.
  8. Federal warning statement: A cautionary statement such as “Caution: Federal law prohibits the transfer of this drug to any person other than the patient for whom prescribed.” Keep in mind that you should never take someone else’s prescription medication even if it’s been prescribed to you before. It’s not safe to take a medicine that’s not prescribed to you as doing so may put your own health at risk.

Over-the-counter medication labels, called drug facts labels, have a different look than prescription labels. What’s on these labels is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so drug facts labels generally look pretty similar to one another.

Over-The-Counter Drug Facts example

  • Active ingredient(s): Your medication’s therapeutic ingredients along with how much of these ingredients one dose contains.
  • Uses: Symptoms or conditions the drug was designed to prevent or treat.
  • Warnings: This section lists situations when you should avoid taking the medication, possible drug interactions or side effects, any conditions that may require asking a doctor’s advice before taking the medicine, when you should stop taking the drug and see your physician, and other essential information for taking the medicine safely. Read these warnings carefully and be sure to check with your doctor or pharmacist if you’re concerned about anything you read in this section.
  • Inactive ingredients: A list of any other ingredients in the medication that don’t have therapeutic effects. For example, flavors or colors.
  • Purpose: The action or category of your medicine is printed here. For instance, a pain reliever or antiseptic.
  • Directions: How to take the medication. It may list different dosages by age or for different symptoms. It may also say to ask your doctor for help.
  • Other information: Here, you’ll find anything else the manufacturer needs you to know about the medicine. This may include directions for storing your drug. You may also see how much of various ingredients your medicine contains, such as calcium or zinc.

As you read the label on a new medication, write down any questions you plan to ask your healthcare provider. Add any new prescriptions to your medication reminder app or system if you’re using one, to help you remember to take each dose.

Remember to check with your pharmacist if you have any questions about what you read on your medication labels. If something on a label seems confusing or looks strange, it’s always a good idea to ask your healthcare professional for advice.

Your prescriptions are personalized by your doctor to fit your health. Your healthcare team knows how to account for your own unique healthcare history, current conditions, how your body reacts to medications, and other factors. Although a friend or family member may take the same medicines, your prescription may still work differently for you. This difference is why it’s so important to ask a healthcare professional for advice. Even the most authoritative sources, may not take every factor impacting your health into account. To be on the safe side, check with your doctor.

Your doctor can also help you come up with strategies for managing and safely storing medications at home.

Managing your medications at home

As a patient, it’s important to remember that you’re an essential part of your own healthcare team. You know what your needs are, and you’re the best person to communicate your preferences.

Some patients end up not following their doctors’ advice or skipping their prescriptions altogether. Having a disability can make it more challenging to follow your doctor’s orders.

“Patients should ask their doctors and pharmacists for help,” says Amarish Davé, DO, a neurologist at Mercy Health in the Northern Illinois area. “Medications can sometimes be prescribed differently or provided in different dosing, for instance.”

According to Dr. Davé, healthcare teams have other options to help out, too. They can sometimes prescribe an extended-release formulation that you don’t have to take as often—which would reduce a pill you take three times per day down to once or twice a day. Occasionally, your doctor can switch you to an alternative medicine or eliminate certain medications completely if they’re no longer needed.

Patients themselves can change how they keep track of their own medications. Dr. Davé says sometimes the low-tech options work best: “Simple refrigerator lists and simple pill organizations can make a difference.”

RELATED: Why medication adherence matters

daily medication schedule

Download the Daily Medication Schedule

Although these medication strategies are helpful for many people with disabilities, it’s essential for you to work with your healthcare provider and find your own way. Feel free to use the tips that make sense for you and your healthcare.

Medication strategies for people with visual impairments

Reading medication instructions and being able to clearly see and interpret labels is essential. For people with visual impairments, sometimes all that is needed are some changes to printed text or cues, and reminders that rely on other senses to communicate information.

braille prescription label

There are some technology-free interventions that may serve as a helpful starting point.

  • Change reading materials: For labels and important medication information, a font of at least 16 points can help with clarity and readability. Use braille labels and reading materials if needed.
  • Adapt visual cues: You can use a large black marker to note a.m./p.m. on a bottle or write a number for how often a medicine should be taken. You could also use rubber bands or raised stickers. For example, wrap a rubber band three times around the bottle, or add three epoxy stickers to represent taking the medicine three times a day. Color-coded prescription bottles can be a helpful reminder: blue bottles for nighttime and red bottles for the morning.
  • Magnification, lighting, and different labels: Asking for a different label that’s easier to read, has less glare, or is printed with better contrast may help. In some instances, a magnifier or special lighting can make reading easier.

Auditory interventions make it easier to manage medications with limited (or no) reliance on vision.

  • Talking devices: Some medical devices such as glucose meters and insulin injectors are available in a version that uses audio instructions to communicate with the patient.
  • Alarms and reminders: Sound-based alarms and reminders can be helpful for keeping track of medication use and remembering when to take the next dose.
  • Medication education device: Audio devices are available that communicate important drug information and instructions to patients.

Routine changes and organizational systems may also be helpful:

  • Timer caps for your pill bottles can help you remember when to take your medications and which prescriptions to take.
  • Taking medications at the same time every day helps you associate your medicines with the right times to take them.
  • Link medications to specific daily routines such as brushing your teeth, taking a shower, or preparing for bed.
  • Use a spice rack or shelf to organize different bottles of pills and other medications. Different shelves or compartments could be for a different time of day, for instance.
  • Enlist a friend or family member to help you start your new routine or stay organized. Or ask your doctor to recommend caregiving options to help you.

Medication information can be presented differently for patients with visual impairments and your healthcare team should be able to get accommodations for you if you ask. You can also ask your pharmacist for suggestions and helpful hints.

Medication management for people with a physical disability and/or mobility limitations

To start, make sure your pharmacist is aware of your disability and any concerns you have about medication management. Explain what adaptations you’re looking for or what adjustments you’ll need to safely take your medication. In some instances, a simple change by your healthcare team can make it easier to use your medicine.

  • Providing non-childproof lids: Although they’re lifesaving for children, childproof lids can be tricky for people with certain physical disabilities. First, ask your pharmacist if a childproof lid is even necessary since not all medications need them. If your medication is potentially dangerous to children or pets, you can still use a normal medication lid as long as you keep your medicine out of reach. It could be in a high cabinet, in a lockbox, or even on top of the refrigerator.
  • Adjusting refills: If you have a mobility limitation or find it challenging to get to the pharmacy, ask your pharmacist or your healthcare provider about the possibility of getting refills early, receiving larger refills, or making another adjustment so you don’t have to make as many trips to the pharmacy.
  • Prescription delivery: Getting your prescriptions by mail or delivered to your door may be helpful if mobility is a challenge. Many pharmacies have convenient delivery programs. Just call and ask.

For patients with physical limitations, keep the following in mind:

  • Reminder systems should be easy to use comfortably. Some pillboxes and organizers have lids that are hard to open and should probably be avoided.
  • If placing medication in a hard-to-reach location isn’t possible, consider keeping drugs stored in a locked box or room to keep them from children and pets. This way, medicine is safely stored while also being accessible.
  • If you have more than one medication to refill, talk to your doctor and pharmacist about having everything ready on the same day, or delivered in the same shipment.

Whenever you travel to get your prescriptions, make the most of the trip. If it’s a challenge to write down questions you have for your pharmacist, consider using a recorder or an app on your smartphone.

Medication management for people with intellectual disabilities

Patients with intellectual disabilities may want to have assistance with their medication that’s customized to how they think and learn best.

These tips can help manage your prescriptions more effectively.

  • Ask for a longer appointment: If you need it, ask your pharmacist for a longer appointment to go over information about your medications.
  • Establish a preferred method of communication and learning: Let your pharmacist know how you communicate best. For instance, visual communication through pictures may be the best way for you to learn and share information.
  • Bring information home: Ask for information to bring home in a format that works for you.
  • Review it later: If needed, get a phone number for reaching your healthcare team with further questions.
  • Get the medication in a different form: Some adults with intellectual disabilities may not want to take pills. If swallowing pills presents a barrier to taking medication regularly, ask the pharmacist if the medicine is available as a liquid, or if pills can be safely crushed and added to food.
  • Ask for assistance if your client, loved one, or friend refuses to take medication: Caregivers sometimes have to deal with medication refusal from the person they’re caring for. Try to find out why this is happening, first. Some patients don’t like swallowing pills or could be confused and afraid. Others feel angry, rushed, or frustrated. If you’re taking care of someone who refuses to take his or her medicine, take a short break, make sure the surroundings are calm, and try again. If he or she continues to refuse, talk to your pharmacist.

Feeling confused or being afraid are common barriers to taking medication. Information may help if it’s presented in the right way. Take time to understand what interventions would help the most.

Tips for effective medication management as the caregiver of a person with a disability

Let’s talk about how caregivers can practice effective medication management. If you’re a professional caregiver, then you likely know that having the right strategies can help make your job a little easier. Targeted interventions designed to fit individualized needs help people with disabilities live healthier, more independent lives. You can provide better care to your client and save your sanity, too.

Stay on track with these tips.

  • Create and manage a medication list using a medication list template: If you don’t have one already, start a comprehensive list of all the medications your client is taking. Include over-the-counter drugs, prescription medications, and all supplements. Because even a simple multivitamin can sometimes cause a drug interaction or problem for your client, be sure to write down absolutely everything.
  • Read the labels and get answers: Understand the prescription and drug facts labels for the medicines your client takes. Look at possible side effects and do some research and find out how to identify possible symptoms and problems. WebMD’s Drug Interaction Checker is one helpful resource that lets you quickly compare multiple medicines at once. Talk to your client’s pharmacist or doctor if you can.
  • Ask the right questions: On your client’s behalf, you can ask questions to make sure your client is getting the most from their medicine.
    • Why is this medication prescribed?
    • How does this medication help the patient’s condition?
    • How can the patient expect to feel while on this medication?
    • Is this medication appropriate for the patient’s age?
    • What side effects can this medication cause?
  • Be consistent: Administer medication at the same time every day.
  • Track dosage: Keep track of when you give a dose, which medications you give, and how much. Use a medication calendar.
  • Create timers: Using alerts and timers, or use a pill reminder app to help you regularly give out doses.

medication feedback form

Download the Medication Feedback Form

Reviewing your medication list and medication safety

On a regular basis, meet with your doctor or pharmacist to review your medication list. If you’re a caregiver of a client with a disability, urge your client to attend a medication review meeting. This is your opportunity to advocate for yourself or for your client and ensure that the medications currently on the list are correct.

As always, if you have any questions or concerns about your medication, do not hesitate to ask your healthcare team. Be an empowered patient or advocate. Learn how to take medications safely and effectively.