Not surprisingly, the risk of chronic disease increases as we age, with 85% of older adults having one chronic condition and 60% having at least two. These conditions often involve complex treatments, including managing several different medications. While your healthcare provider and pharmacy team can help guide you on the best way to keep on top of your medications, it can be helpful to know the best practices for safe prescribing, storage, and ongoing use of medications.
This medication management guide is designed to empower seniors, caregivers, and family members with helpful information to maximize the benefits of medication while reducing the risk of medication errors and drug interactions. As with all information dealing with medication and health guidance, always check with your doctor or pharmacist before you take any new medication or make changes to your medication regimen.
Effective medication management requires teamwork
You’re an essential part of your healthcare team —which is why you should educate yourself on the ways you can be more involved in medication management. To be successful, you’ll need to communicate with your healthcare provider so that the best medications are prescribed for your current situation and adjustments can be made in a timely manner.
Instead of prescribing medication once and refilling it for the rest of your life, your doctor needs to be aware of health status changes that may affect or even eliminate your need for certain medications altogether. Check in with your healthcare team regularly, even between appointments, whether it’s through an in-person visit, a telehealth appointment, or simply a quick call to the nurse.
Reading medication labels
Doctors and pharmacists don’t intend for medication directions to be confusing, but the fact is that many seniors have a mix of different medicines—both prescription and OTC—and it can be overwhelming. Balancing them all safely requires careful reading of the label to understand how each works and why it is needed.
Whether it’s a medicine for a temporary condition or a long-term therapy, knowing how it works can empower you to make the best choices.
All medications come with a label containing the basic information. As you review your new medication, be sure to read the label carefully for information on dosage, timing, interactions, and other important issues.
Typically, a prescription label has eight parts and types of information. Keep in mind that your own prescription labels may look somewhat different, but they will generally have similar content listed for you to reference. Learn to recognize these parts on your own medication labels:
- Pharmacy information: Name and address, phone number, and other key details about the pharmacy that filled your prescription.
- Your information: Name and address of the person the drug is prescribed to
- Prescribing doctor’s information: Physician or healthcare provider’s name and contact information.
- Drug name and strength: Medicine’s brand, chemical, or generic name along with the strength of one unit of the prescription in a measurement such as milligrams (mg), milliliters (mL), or micrograms (mcg).
- Instructions: An explanation of how and when to take the medication. For example, “Take one tablet by mouth twice daily, morning and night.”
- Prescription information: Date your medication was prescribed, the date your medication was filled by a pharmacist, the number of pills or doses provided, how many times your prescription may be refilled, when your medication expires, and the number your pharmacy assigned to your prescription.
- Pharmaceutical manufacturer information: Name of the company that manufactured your medication and a physical description of the drug. If it’s a generic version of a brand-name drug, the name of the branded counterpart may also be listed here.
- Federal caution statement: Prescription warnings such as “Caution: Federal law prohibits transfer of this drug to any person other than the patient for whom prescribed.”
Remember, you should never take someone else’s medication, even if you’ve taken it before. It’s dangerous to take medicine that’s not prescribed for you, and doing so could put your health at serious risk. Always read the instructions section carefully, especially if it’s a new medication, and ask your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions, such as what to do if you lose the dispensing spoon or dropper.
An over-the-counter medication you can purchase without a prescription has a different label, called a Drug Facts label. Here’s what that usually includes, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations.
- Active ingredient(s): The therapeutic ingredients in your medication and the amount contained in each dose.
- Uses: Any symptoms or condition the medicine is designed to treat or prevent.
- Warnings: When you shouldn’t use this medicine, any possible side effects and drug interactions, conditions that may require a doctor’s advice before taking the medicine, when you should stop taking the medicine and see a doctor, and other critically important information about taking the medication. (Read this section carefully before taking a medication for the first time.)
- Inactive ingredients: Other substances added that don’t have a therapeutic effect, such as colors or flavors, but that may still cause sensitivities or allergic reactions in some users.
- Purpose: The medicine’s mode of action or drug class, such as antacid or pain reliever.
- Directions: Information for proper use, according to age or symptom severity, along with guidance for when to talk to a doctor.
- Other information: Anything else the manufacturer wants you to know about the medicine. It may include information about how to store the drug or how much of an ingredient (such as calcium) the medication contains.
When you get a new medication, take a look at the label and jot down any questions you have for your healthcare provider. If you’re using medication reminders, add this prescription so everything is ready for the first day of treatment. If you encounter anything unusual or confusing on your label, check with your pharmacist.
Do keep in mind that your prescription is tailored to your health. Even if a friend or family member is taking the same medicine, the medicine may work differently for you. This is one reason why it’s absolutely essential to refer to your healthcare team for medical advice and information instead of other sources (like the internet) meant for a broad audience. Only your healthcare provider can give you relevant guidance on how to take your medications safely.
Aging changes our responses to medication
As we age, our bodies change how they interact with medications. Even very healthy people might respond differently to medications than they did in earlier years.
How does aging change the body’s reaction to pharmaceuticals? Here are a few possible changes.
- Metabolism: Your body processes each medication at a different rate. Over time, your metabolism of a particular drug may speed up or slow down. This can increase the risk of side effects or decrease the effectiveness of the drug.
- Brain and nervous system: Many drugs impact the central nervous system (CNS) directly, and aging can change this process. For example, seniors are more susceptible to the CNS effects of drugs like benzodiazepines and antidepressants. These effects can include increased dizziness or drowsiness for some people.
- Kidney and liver function: Since these organs are responsible for filtering and processing substances in the body, any age-related changes to kidney and liver function can affect how well your body is able to remove medicines and toxins. People with kidney or liver disease may have trouble clearing drugs from the body, which may lead to increased side effects.
- Weight changes: Many people gain or lose weight as they age or experience appetite changes. Some drugs are processed and distributed differently throughout the body depending on body weight.
“Elders have less tolerance for medications than younger adults,” says Dr. Elizabeth Landsverk, a board-certified geriatric doctor and founder of ElderConsult Geriatric Medicine. Dr. Landsverk notes that these changes in how our bodies process medication can lead to different side effects. The timing of new side effects may provide clues to the root cause, however. “If a symptom starts after a new medication, it’s likely a side effect from the new meds,” she says. “Seek the advice of a doctor or pharmacist, they will likely change the prescription. Do not change dosages or try a different medication based on something you read on the internet.”
Aging could warrant dosage changes to ensure medications are safe and effective. Your healthcare providers should regularly reevaluate the medicines you’re taking to see if new prescriptions are necessary. According to Dr. Landsverk, many seniors gradually lose their appetite and experience weight loss, which may call for a change in medication dosage.
If you notice anything different or unusual during treatment, it’s important to bring this up during your next conversation with your doctor or pharmacist.
Medication safety tips and dosage information
Medicines have the potential to make life-changing improvements to your health. At the same time, your medications are only helpful if you know how to use them correctly. Knowing how to manage your medications can be the key to benefiting the most from your treatments.
Ultimately, your doctor or personal healthcare provider and your pharmacist should be your guide on how to use and track your medications. When in doubt, be sure to check with a qualified health professional. Only your healthcare provider or pharmacist knows how your individual health profile, health status, and lifestyle habits can affect your medication needs.
Medication safety also means knowing where many seniors go wrong with managing their medications and how you can avoid it to protect yourself.
Common medication mistakes and how to avoid them
Eighty-two percent of U.S. adults take at least one medication, while 29% take more than four. Having multiple prescriptions can complicate the task of keeping track of medicines, including when and how to take them.
“The two key challenges that seniors face are polypharmacy (taking lots of pills) and remembering to take them,” says Dr. Ceppie Merry, who holds a Ph.D. in pharmacology. “It can be really complex to remember what to take and when to take them.” Merry also adds that any cognitive decline or complex conditions seniors have can make it even easier to make mistakes when managing medications.
Adverse drug events (ADEs) are the harmful consequences that can happen when using medications, such as allergic reactions and side effects; The risk of ADEs may be higher when taking medications incorrectly. Medication errors are just one cause of an adverse drug event, but it’s estimated that 350,000 hospitalizations and 1.3 million emergency room visits result from ADEs each year.
What should you do if you take your medication incorrectly? Don’t panic, but always contact your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions or concerns. The adage “better safe than sorry” applies here. This is why you should always keep important phone numbers like your doctor’s contact information nearby in case you need to call their office.
If you experience life-threatening symptoms, including any listed as side effects on your medication bottle labels, call 911 right away.
Avoiding medication errors
To stay on track with taking your medicines, it helps to have a medication strategy. Here’s what you can do to reduce your risk of a serious medication error.
- Take medications consistently: Always take your medications at a consistent time. It also helps with consistency if you can associate taking the medication with a specific event, such as a meal. For instance, if you take a pill with breakfast at 8 a.m. one day, try to always take that medicine around 8 a.m. when you eat.
- Use reminders: Forgetful about taking your medicine? Consider using a reminder app or setting an alarm for each dose.
- Prevent interactions: Many medicines can’t be taken together or with specific foods or supplements. Certain medications interact with citrus fruits, for example. Your pharmacist can help you identify any diet or medication list changes you need to make.
- Get a medication review: With every new prescription, ask your pharmacist to review your medication and supplement list. Your healthcare provider may recommend ideas for how to take them together safely. Also, see if you’re eligible for your pharmacy’s medication therapy management (MTM) program. Your pharmacist will sit down with you for a comprehensive medication review at no additional cost to you.
- Ask your doctor or pharmacist: If you’re prone to forgetting doses or taking an extra pill now and then, ask a healthcare professional what you should do. Sometimes, it’s not a big deal if you miss a dose. However, if you miss too many doses of an antibiotic, for example, you could be at risk of a worsened infection. On the other hand, taking too much of a medication might cause a serious reaction or side effect.
- Read the literature and instructions: If your medication came with written information or your healthcare provider included instructions, be sure to read these carefully. If anything is unclear, don’t hesitate to make a note of it. Call your doctor and ask for clarification before you start taking your medication. It’s a good practice to read the instructions before you leave the pharmacy, so you can ask the pharmacist.
Have trouble remembering your medications? Here are a few ideas to try.
- Use a dosage reminder or pill reminder app: Consider using a smartphone pill reminder app to remind you to take medication.
- Set an alarm: Set an alarm for times during the day when you take your medicine. Be sure to keep track of what you’re supposed to take, too.
- Make a list: Write down a list of your medications and other information, such as the time of day you take your medications, the dosage you take, and any side effects you experience. That way, you can easily refer back to the list later.
- Ask for help remembering: If a family member, friend, or caregiver can help you remember to take your medications, ask for their help.
- Add it to your calendar or planner: Write down reminders in your calendar or planner.
- Use sticky notes, send yourself emails, or post other reminders: Think about how you manage your time and how you use reminders. Choose a method that works best for you.
- Use a pill organizer for medication storage: At most drugstores, you can buy an inexpensive pill organizer with compartments for different times and days. This works best if you take a small number of medications every day.
Keeping your medications organized may also prevent mistakes. Here’s how to get started with tracking and organizing medicines.
Organizing your medications and medication storage
Managing your medications is easier when you can fully account for everything you’re taking. With the help of a healthcare professional (if needed), gather all the medications and supplements you’re currently taking and start organizing them.
Consider these tips to help with medication management.
- Create a medication list (if needed, use a medication list template): Write the name of each prescription you’re taking on the list. You can also add information about how often you take each dose and for what condition, but the important thing is to start with a complete list of drug names and doses, so your healthcare provider knows where to look and what questions to ask. Most healthcare professionals use electronic charts and are able to provide this information in a handy list for your use. Ask if they can print one out the next time you have an appointment.
- Start with supplements: Since so many people don’t consider supplements to be medications, it’s not uncommon for some seniors to take supplements that can cause serious side effects or interact with medications prescribed by their doctors. Bottom line—your doctor needs to know. Make sure your personal medication list template covers supplements.
- List all OTC (over-the-counter) medicines you take: Many seniors take drugstore medications that are sold without a prescription, such as acetaminophen (the generic version of Tylenol) for pain relief or calcium carbonate antacids for managing heartburn.
- Keep medication packaging: Hold onto the original boxes and containers for your medications so you can quickly refer to the package or label if needed. Package inserts or patient information leaflets are included with every medication, so be sure to keep that information with the original packaging. A shoebox-size plastic storage bin with a lid or a gallon-size plastic bag are great ways to store packaging and information for medicines you’re currently taking. Always store your medicines and packaging away from where pets and children can reach them, even if your medicines have child-proof caps.
- Pick one pharmacy: Having multiple pharmacies could increase the risk of drug interactions or duplicate therapies, especially if your healthcare provider has recently changed or prescribed a medication. Ideally, you should only use one pharmacy to make it easy for your pharmacist to review your prescriptions and provide you with information about possible drug interactions or other concerns. If you must use more than one pharmacy for any reason, be sure to provide complete information about the medications you’re currently taking, and make sure the pharmacist has access to this information.
As you organize your medications, don’t forget to check expiration dates and remove medicines you no longer take. Ask your doctor if it’s okay to discard old medication documentation. If you do toss this information out, cross out any personal information with a black marker or consider shredding the document first.
Reviewing medicine with your pharmacist or doctor
Periodically, you should have a medication review appointment with your doctor or pharmacist. During these appointments, you’ll want to keep your healthcare provider informed about how your treatment is going. This is also a good time to ask questions and express your concerns. Highlight any side effects you have experienced, and mention any frustrations or concerns you have with your medicines. Don’t forget to bring a list of questions with you. Since many doctor appointments are short, make the most of your time together by preparing a list of topics and questions beforehand.
By educating yourself and managing your medications properly, you may get better results from your treatment and you may avoid some of the common risks of using medicines. Your healthcare team is there to help you. Work closely with them and become your own healthcare advocate.