Medication Management and Safety

Know Your Loved One’s Medications

As your loved one ages, he or she is more prone to develop adverse medical conditions, which, in turn, may result in numerous medications being prescribed by a variety of different health care professionals. While it is essential to treat illness in the elderly, taking multiple medications poses many risks.

Polypharmacy is the term used to describe a situation where a person is taking too many medications, some of which may not be clinically warranted, which places him or her at a greater risk for unfavorable drug reactions. This widespread problem is even more common amongst the elderly population, but vigilance and organization can prevent most drug complications from ever affecting your loved one.

As a potential caregiver and advocate for your loved one, it is important to be aware of his or her prescriptions and to acquire the knowledge you will need to assist your loved one with medication management, should this become necessary.

For every medication taken, ensure that both you and your loved one know the answers to the following questions:

  • What is the medication called? (Be aware that drugs are commonly referred to by their generic and brand names interchangeably).
  • What is the purpose of the medication?
  • How much of it should be taken in a sitting?
  • How often should the medication be taken?
  • At what time of day should the medication be taken?
  • Are there any special instructions for how the medication is taken? (With food, etc.)
  • What should you do if a dose is missed?
  • Are there any special instructions for storing the medication?
  • What is the procedure for requesting a refill?

Develop a Medication Routine

For medications to work correctly, it is essential that they be taken on the schedule recommended by your loved one’s health care providers. The first step to developing a daily healthcare routine is to ensure that whoever dispenses the medication – whether it is your loved one, yourself or another caregiver – has a system in place to regulate correct dosages and prevent medication schedules from being forgotten.

Some methods for keeping medications organized include:

  • Spreadsheets or checklists that are marked off when medications have been taken
  • Pill containers used to separate dosages by morning/afternoon/evening
  • Online medication logs
  • Beepers that signal when it’s time to take medications
  • Electronic pill dispensers that release medications at the time they are to be taken
  • Associating medication consumption with an event, such as a meal or bedtime, rather than a specific hour of the day

Never allow your loved one to deviate from his or her medication routine by changing times or dosages without first consulting a medical professional. It is especially crucial not to abruptly cease taking a medication without a doctor’s approval. Many drugs require the user to taper off slowly to avoid adverse health reactions.

The AssistGuide Information Services’ website provides information for caregivers, including guides and tools for organizing and dispensing medications.

Work With Providers

When a senior is taking multiple medications, one of the biggest fears is the possibility that some of his or her prescriptions could interact badly with one another. In 2008, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported the results of a study conducted by the University of Chicago. After interviewing roughly 3,000 older adults on the topic of their medication use, researchers determined that 1 out of every 25 of these seniors was at risk of experiencing serious and potentially harmful drug interactions.

For this reason, it is important to keep an updated list of your loved one’s medications on hand, including over-the-counter (OTC) remedies, and to take it along with you to be reviewed at every medical visit. Older adults often see a variety of specialists and might occasionally take a trip to the ER, so it is important that all physicians who treat your loved one are able to coordinate their care to avoid over-medicating the patient.  The Philadelphia College of Pharmacy advises that “health care professionals should be aware of the risks and fully evaluate all medications at each patient visit to prevent polypharmacy from occurring.”

Your loved one’s pharmacist is a valuable source of information, because he has vast knowledge of drug effects and how different pharmaceuticals interact with each other and very likely has access to a computer system that will alert him in case of trouble. It is wise to get all prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy so that the staff will have a full picture of your loved one’s medication use, but if this is not possible, be sure to provide a copy of the updated medication list to each pharmacist. Don’t forget to include any remedies that your loved one might be taking OTC.

Be Aware of Side Effects

Keep and familiarize yourself with the documentation that comes with your loved one’s prescriptions, so that you can be on the lookout for signs of dangerous side effects. Contact your loved one’s health care provider immediately if he or she experiences any problems with medications, and know which side effects are critical enough to require an emergency trip to a clinic or the ER.

If your loved one drinks alcohol, be aware that these beverages can react badly with many medications. Always discuss the safety of alcohol consumption with the health care provider whenever a new medication is prescribed.

Keep Your Loved One Safe

As beneficial as medicines can be, there are many potential risks associated with the use of medication. Protect your loved one by following these safety dos and don’ts to ensure that he or she is taking the correct prescriptions and that their drugs are performing at the highest capacity:


  • Keep medications in their original containers to avoid mistakes or confusion.
  • If your loved one has poor eyesight, ask your pharmacist to label bottles with large print.
  • Make sure your loved one never takes medication in areas without adequate lighting for reading labels.
  • If your loved one has difficulty swallowing a large quantity of pills, discuss other options with the doctor, such as liquid versions, smaller pills in lower dosages or less pills in higher dosages.
  • Store medications in a cool, dry place. Bathroom cabinets are a poor choice because of the heat and humidity commonly found in this room of the house.
  • Dispose of any medications that look suspicious with changes in shape, size, color or texture.


  • Never allow your loved one to experiment with a medication that has not been prescribed to him or her.
  • Don’t leave the cotton plug in medication bottles, because it may attract moisture to the container.
  • Don’t allow your loved one to take medications that have been left too long inside a car, because heat can destroy the beneficial properties of the drug.
  • Don’t allow your loved one to take medications that are past their expiration date.

Keep Others Safe

Be aware that your loved one’s medications could pose a threat to other individuals who might ingest the drugs accidentally – or even on purpose!

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that in 2010, more than 70,000 children under the age of five were admitted to the emergency room after ingesting prescription drugs. To prevent such accidents, it is essential to store medications out of the reach of children and pets.

Never allow your loved one to share medications with others, because he or she could be held liable if someone has an adverse reaction to a drug that has not been prescribed to them. Also, be vigilant about individuals who may wish to “borrow” pills belonging to the elderly. If teenaged grandchildren or other friends/family members might pose such a risk, it is advisable to store your loved ones medications under lock and key.

Proper Disposal

Always dispose of unused medications properly, to avoid the possibility of accidental or intentional ingestion. Before the disposal of a drug, check the label for specific instructions. Some require that you flush them down the toilet, but this should not be done unless instructed. If you throw expired or unneeded medications into the trash, the FDA recommends that you place the drugs in a sealable bag, and also suggests that you remove them from their original containers and mix with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter. The makes the medication less appealing to kids and animals and unrecognizable to people who may intentionally go through your garbage.

A better option for safe drug disposal is to inquire about any medication “take-back” programs that may be available in your community. Some police stations will allow you to drop off controlled substances, and the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control sponsors National Prescription Drug Take-Back Days throughout the United States every year.

Additional Resources

For more information on managing medications safely, here is a list of helpful resources:

  • Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
    540 Gaither Road
    Rockville, MD 20850
  • Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)
    7500 Security Boulevard
    Baltimore, MD 21244-1850
    1-800-633-4227 (1-800-MEDICARE/toll-free)
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
    10903 New Hampshire Avenue
    Silver Spring, MD 20993
    1-888-463-6332 (toll-free)
  • Partnership for Prescription Assistance
    1-888-477-2669 (toll-free)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
    1-877-SAMHSA-7 (1-877-726-4727)
    1-800-487-4889 (TTY)
    P.O. Box 2345
    Rockville, MD 20847-2345

Written by senior care writer Mack Fritch.

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