As you age, you may develop conditions or diseases that require you to take medication. For some people, the number of medications and their specific instructions can become increasingly complex. Additionally, memory and cognition can be affected by aging. As a result of these factors, and many others, many older adults do not take their medications as instructed.
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What Causes Medication Problems?
According to Jennifer Pruskowski, PharmD, a palliative care clinical pharmacist at UPMC, more than half of the population (including aging adults) does not take their medications as prescribed.
Reasons for this include:
- Concerns about affordability
- Misunderstanding the instructions
- Weakened cognition
Dr. Pruskowski interacts with many aging patients and has found that one of the primary reasons for not taking medication as prescribed is the hassle of doing so. “As we age, the number of medications that we take increases, and these medications tend to inhibit the normal flow and structure of our day,” she says.
Another concern is affordability, resulting in patients determining their own dosing to make prescriptions last or simply not filling them at all. If affordability is a concern, Dr. Pruskowski recommends speaking with your pharmacist or doctor. Often pharmacies can access databases and search for ways to reduce your medication costs.
Another significant reason is a fear of negative side effects. Many aging patients have not discussed potential side effects with their doctors, and those who experience side effects often decide not to take the medication again.
“When a medication doesn’t make you feel good, and it costs money,” Dr. Pruskowski explains, “and you have trouble remembering when and how you have to take all of these different drugs throughout the day, the whole scenario can inhibit or decrease your quality of life.”
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How Medication Affects Older Adults
As we age, we are more likely to develop chronic health conditions. However, our bodies also start to process medication differently, making drugs more likely to interact in a negative way.
If patients are prescribed a lot of medications, they may stop taking them altogether. But if a patient is prescribed a medication to treat a chronic illness and doesn’t take it correctly, his or her overall health is at greater risk.
“Sometimes an interaction can be mistaken for a medical problem, resulting in additional medications being prescribed,” says Dr. Pruskowski. This phenomenon is called “the prescribing cascade.”
Consuming alcohol around the time you are taking medication can also cause negative interactions, especially for prescription medications. For this reason, it is always important to check the label for alcohol or other warnings.
There are also risks associated with expired drugs. If you’re concerned about accidentally taking expired drugs, or about the person you’re caring for taking them, you can dispose of drugs safely in a couple of ways:
- Participate in a “drug take-back day” at your local pharmacy or police station
- Crush the drugs and mix with a substance like used cat litter or coffee grounds before throwing them away
Medication Management Tips for Elderly People
So, what are some helpful medication management tips? If you are aging (or if you are caring for somebody who is), ask and answer the following questions:
- What medications am I taking? What are they for?
- What is the prescribed dose of each medication?
- What time should I take each medication, and how often each day?
- Should I take any of these medications with food? On an empty stomach? Do fiber supplements or laxatives affect the timing?
- Can I drink grapefruit juice with this medicine or eat grapefruit?
- Can I drink alcohol while I’m on these medications? How long should I wait after taking them?
“It’s really important for everyone to know how to take their medications as prescribed, what the medications are for, and what some of the potential side effects are so that they can report these to their providers,” Dr. Pruskowski says.
A pillbox marked with the days of the week is one tool that can make managing multiple medications easier. For tech-savvy seniors, a medication app could be the perfect solution.
To learn more about medication management for seniors and for more medication management tips, please visit the UPMC Aging Institute.
About UPMC Senior Services
UPMC Senior Services provides resources for older adults, their loved ones, and caregivers at every stage of the aging process. We create educational programs and health care services. We use our services to help seniors live longer and healthier lives. We partner with other organizations to determine the biggest challenges facing seniors and work to overcome them.