Medication Safety: How You Can Help

By John Nicely, PharmD, MBA

Many senior adults take multiple medications several times a day. Keeping up with this can be difficult, particularly if memory is becoming a challenge. Methods for senior adults to remember their medication doses do exist, and there are also some things you can do to help your loved ones get the most benefit from their medication and stay safe in the process. These general medication safety tips are a good place to start.

Remembering Doses

There are a variety of methods to remember medication doses. Some people place rubber bands on their wrists as a reminder; others record their doses on a calendar after they take them. There are two gadgets available that I like best. One is a simple med box that has compartments for several times each day, for every day of the week. The patient fills the box once a week, placing the appropriate meds in the appropriate compartments. This is probably sufficient for those simply trying to keep track of multiple medications, and is helpful if your loved one can’t remember whether he or she took a dose or not.

The other device is an alarm med box. This is especially helpful for those who cannot remember to take their medications. It is similar to the box mentioned above, except that it comes complete with an alarm that can be set for the appropriate times, and the alarm sounds as a reminder to take the meds. For those dealing with more severe memory issues, there are also more sophisticated models that will only open the appropriate compartment when the alarm sounds.

Know Your Medications

What you don’t know CAN hurt you. The more your loved one knows about the medications he is taking, the more comfortable he will be that he is using them properly. You may not have a problem asking your physician or pharmacist questions, but senior adults grew up in a time when questioning a doctor’s advice or a pharmacist’s prescription was far less prevalent. Encourage your loved one to ask questions of their doctor or pharmacist. Make sure they know how to contact them. Have them write questions down with a return addressed envelope if necessary. For each medication a senior adult takes, whether it’s a prescription medication or an over-the-counter drug, that person should have a chart like this to be sure she understands what the medication does and how it should be used.

Medication name (both brand and generic)
Size, color, and imprint on pill
Dosage
Common side effects
What to do for side effects
When to call the doctor
Other special instructions

If your loved one notices a change in shape, color or size of tablet or capsule when refilling a prescription, he should consult the pharmacist. The pharmacist may simply be changing the brand of drug to get the best price. Sometimes, however, mistakes do happen. If you notice a change, ask about it!

Drug Dos and Don’ts

These drug DOs and DON’Ts can help you make sure that medication works safely. Make sure any senior adults you care for are aware of these do’s and don’ts.

Do:

Take each medication exactly as it has been prescribed.
Blood levels of medication are very important. If doses are taken too close together instead of the appropriate intervals, side effects increase. Too high/too low of a blood level can occur and absorption may be enhanced or delayed.

Make sure that all your doctors know about all your medications. 
It is very important that you tell your doctor all the medications you are taking and which doctors are helping with your care. This ensures that medications don’t overlap. Consults with other doctors will be easier also.

Tell your doctors and pharmacist about any other over-the-counter medications, vitamins, supplements or herbs that you use.
Over-the-counter medications and herbal remedies can cause adverse reactions or interactions with other medications. Make sure each member of your healthcare team knows what you take.

Use the same pharmacy to fill all your prescriptions.
Pharmacies keep profiles on each patient. Tell your pharmacist all medical conditions you have and every medication you take. He or she can help you keep track of your current prescriptions and can alert you or your doctor of possible interactions.

Keep medications out of the reach of children. 
Adult formulations can kill children. Many medications are colorful and flavored, so children will look at them as candy-like products.

Read the handouts with each new prescription.
Each new prescription has reading material with it. This is life saving information and answers questions that may not have been asked at the doctor’s office. This patient information sheet is a wonderful reference for the patient or caregiver.

Read the label 3 times.
This keeps you from taking the wrong medication. It is important to identify which medications you are about to take. Reading the label 3 times helps reduce errors and keeps you from overdosing.

Don’t:

DON’T change your medication dose or schedule without talking with your doctor. 
As a rule, don’t change or stop medication without talking with your doctor or pharmacist. Many drugs need to be tapered off, and serious side effects can be seen if medications are suddenly stopped. Sometimes medications need sufficient time to work. A month or longer often optimizes drug therapy. Stopping medications too soon can be worse than not taking them at all, especially with antibiotics. If antibiotics aren’t able to reach MIC (minimal inhibitory concentrations) for a specified period, then the next generation of bacteria will be resistant. Resistant bacteria are often very difficult to treat.

DON’T use medication prescribed for someone else. 
What is safe and beneficial for one person may not be for another. You may have medical conditions or allergies that could make the medication harmful to you. Only your physician knows the proper medication for you.

DON’T crush or break pills unless your doctor instructs you to do so. 
This can change the rate of absorption into the body. Drugs are best absorbed if they are taken in the form the manufacturer made them. If medications are broken or crushed, it may cause a dumping effect, thus dropping blood pressure, etc.

DON’T use medication that is past its expiration date. 
It is crucial not to take medication past its expiration date. Medicines can breakdown, becoming less potent, or even toxic. As moisture accumulates in the container, bacteria, mold, etc. can grow undetected on the surface of the expired medication.

DON’T store your medications in locations that are too hot, too cold or too damp. For example, the bathroom cabinet may not be the best place for your medication.

If you are the legal caregiver for a senior adult, don’t be afraid to ask their health care providers questions about any issue that you have concerning their medications. Their life may depend on it.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as specific medical, legal, or financial advice. Please consult with your physician before making any changes to your medical care.

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