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We are fortunate to live in a place and time with unprecedented medical advances and access to healthcare. As a result, we are combating disease, slowing the aging process and generally living longer. Generally, particularly for seniors, this includes managing our health by taking a battery of medications. From hypertension meds taken since middle-age, to impossible-to-pronounce treatments needed for just a few weeks, seniors have the unenviable task of determining when, why and how to manage their prescription and over-the-counter drugs, oftentimes all on their own.

For seniors living on their own, a missed or mistakenly taken dose can have serious ramifications. Most drugs are only effective if taken at the proper time and under specific conditions. And, many must reach consistent levels in the body to be effective. More importantly, it can be extremely dangerous to decrease those levels unexpectedly.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 55 percent of the elderly are “non-compliant” with their prescription drug prescriptions, meaning they don’t take the medication according to the doctor’s orders, and approximately 200,000 seniors are hospitalized annually due to adverse drug reactions.

There are many reasons seniors don’t take their medications as prescribed. Here are some common causes of medication mistakes, and what can be done about them.

Isolation

Generally speaking, seniors living on their own are less compliant with their doctor’s instructions. If at all possible, entrust a loved one or caregiver with monitoring prescriptions, accompanying the senior to medical appointments, and compiling and maintaining a complete list of prescriptions, dosage, instructions and side effects, if any.

Vision Problems

Being unable to read small print on labels or distinguish between pills can be frustrating and can lead to potentially dangerous misuse. Many pharmacies now offer larger bottles and print size; be sure to ask for this option the next time you or your loved one fills a prescription.

Memory Loss

Seniors 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 an overdose.  We’ve all seen the ‘Sunday to Saturday’ plastic pill organizers which can be extremely helpful in medication management. Now, there are many new pill organizers available, even computerized versions with alarms that sound if a dose is missed.

Income

Seniors on fixed incomes or with limited financial means, may not have the money to buy the medications they need. Some opt to cut pills or cut back on the prescribed dose; others will go without their medication for lengthy stretches of time. Generic versions of popular brand-name drugs are released throughout the year and are much less expensive; always be sure to ask if a generic alternative is available. Some pharmaceutical companies even offer discount programs or coupons for commonly prescribed medications, so be sure to check the manufacturer’s website.

Swallowing Problems

Some seniors have trouble swallowing a tablet or capsule due to certain esophageal conditions. They try to chew, crush, or take pills with food or drink, causing a negative effect, especially with medications that are meant to be released over time. As an option, ask the doctor or pharmacist if the drug comes in liquid form.

Hearing Loss

Hearing problems can impede an elderly person’s ability to hear and follow a doctor’s or pharmacist’s instructions. If possible, transcribe verbal instructions and don’t be shy about asking your health professional to repeat him or herself. And don’t forget to wear your hearing aid!

Enlist the Help of Your Healthcare Team

Your healthcare team – nurses, doctors, pharmacists, along with your dentist and chiropractor – is there to help you manage and maintain all aspects of your good health. Don’t be shy in enlisting their help and ideas as you navigate the complexities of medication management.