April 22, 2020

If you have a senior loved one, you know that taking a peek into their medicine cabinet can sometimes feel a little overwhelming — with prescription pill bottles of every shape and size filling up the shelves alongside herbal treatments, vitamins, and colorful packages of over-the-counter medicines (OTC).

If thinking about all of these medicines and supplements is a lot for you, it may also pose a challenge to your elderly loved one. As a family caregiver, one of the most important things you can do to safeguard your loved one’s health and well-being is to help them monitor and manage their medicines, including prescriptions, OTC medicines, and supplements. This can also be a tricky conversation to have, as many older adults are extremely protective of their medication routines. 

Prescription Drug and Supplement Use for Seniors

When you factor in supplements, OTC medicines, and prescriptions, seniors tend to take a lot of medication, on average. A 2016 study, brought to our attention by Harvard Health, found that more than a third of adults aged 62 to 85 take “five or more” prescription medications, OTC drugs, or dietary supplements. 

According to research from the AARP, half of all Americans take dietary supplements, and consumers “spend more than $28 billion a year on vitamins, minerals and herbal remedies,” as a way to help manage everything from “insomnia to depression.” 

Seniors tend to take multiple prescription medications to manage health conditions, ranging from chronic pain to cardiovascular disease. At the same time, many older adults also use treatments above and beyond what their doctor prescribes, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explains. This could be as simple as taking pain relievers, antacids, and cold medicines, as needed. Many seniors also eye drops, as well as topical creams and ointments. Still more older adults regularly take dietary supplements, vitamins, and herbal remedies. 

The Importance of Safe Prescription and Supplement Use

Often, seniors fold these OTC treatments and supplements into their daily routines without talking to their doctors. Because many seniors have been taking OTC medicines since they were kids, they don’t think about the risks that may exist now that they’re older, and relying on more prescriptions to stay healthy. In other cases, seniors assume that “natural” supplements will be totally harmless. 

In reality? Data from the National Social Life Health and Aging Project found that “about one in six older adults is taking a combination” of medicines “that could cause a major interaction,” according to Harvard Health

Most medicines pose the risk of side effects, which can be mild or severe and may range from light nausea, to a loss of balance, to a serious illness. Many medications and supplements can also interact with food, drinks, existing health conditions, and other medicines, which can create a whole new set of problems for older adults. Seniors with chronic health conditions such as kidney disease, heart disease, or liver disease may be particularly vulnerable to these adverse reactions, because their bodies are less equipped to absorb and use the active ingredients in their medications.

The more medicines a person takes, the higher the risk for experiencing a potentially harmful interaction. 

Depending on what drugs and supplements your loved one is taking, some “red flags” to watch out for might include; 

  • Loss of appetite
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • Sleepiness or lethargy
  • Weakness
  • An increase in anxiety or excitability
  • Skin rashes
  • Dehydration

Helping Your Senior Loved One Safely Manage All of Their Medicines

As a family caregiver, it’s important to help your loved ones stay on top of their medicines — including the little things it’s easy to overlook, from OTC cold medication to natural remedies.

Here a few ways to help make things easier and safer for the senior in your life: 

Take a Full Inventory

Regularly go through all of your senior’s medicines and supplements, including vitamins, herbal supplements, and topical creams and ointments. Take notes and create a list of what your loved one is using — including the name of the drug or treatment, its strength in milligrams, the recommended dosage and instructions, and any warnings or cautions printed on the bottle or package. Keep this list current over time. Save this information to a Google Doc or keep a file on hand for easy access at doctor’s appointments.

Research All Medicines and Supplements

Read all the information that comes with prescriptions and OTC medicines. If you are unfamiliar with a medicine or treatment, research online for potential side effects or additional information from reputable sources. 

Never hesitate to talk to your loved one’s doctor for help and information whenever the senior starts a new prescription drug, adjusts their dosage, or begins using an OTC treatment. Prepare a list of questions to ask your loved one’s physician, such as: 

  • What does the medicine treat?
  • How often should it be taken, and at what time? 
  • How much is a regular dosage?
  • Could the medicine interact with other supplements or prescriptions that the senior is taking? 
  • When should your loved one stop taking medicine? 
  • What side effects might be expected? 

Keep Medicines and Supplements Organized

AgingCare recommends keeping all medicines in their original packaging, to make sure they’re clearly labeled. If you receive supplemental information about a drug — such as a list of side effects, recommended dosages, or the expiration date — collect all of this documentation in one file for easy access. If your loved one uses a pill organizer, make sure that everyone on their care team knows how it should be set up and used. 

AgingCare also suggests taking the additional step of filling all of your loved one’s prescriptions through one pharmacy, if possible. As this handy resource explains: 

“This ensures the pharmacist will be aware of all medications a senior is currently taking and allows them to screen for potential drug interactions, duplications and other medication-related issues. You can also consult the pharmacist about minimizing side effects, reducing prescription drug costs and finding appropriate OTC medication options.”

Help Your Loved One Set a Clear Medication Schedule

Help your loved one get into a routine of taking certain medicines or supplements at certain times of the day. This can help prevent the possibility of missing a dose, or accidentally taking too much at one time. 

Find a system that works for you and your loved one. You might create a medicine calendar or chart; set out a written list of instructions (e.g., “take this pill with water after lunch”); set up a pill organizer/dispenser; or set reminders on your loved one’s phone or alarm clock. 

Your loved one’s professional caregiver can also be a great resource for keeping an eye on them, and making sure that they take medicines on time and in the proper way. 

Keep in mind that your loved one may be very resistant to getting help. This can be a difficult conversation, and seniors may see accepting help with their medications as a difficult hurdle – much like that dreaded day when you have to talk about giving up driving. Many seniors are protective of their independence, and will be protective of their decision-making process when it comes to meds and supplements. Be patient, empathetic, and understanding, and make sure the senior feels included in this process. 

Work Closely With Your Loved One’s Healthcare Team

Your loved one’s doctors are there to be a resource. Don’t hesitate to ask questions and get as much information as possible about new supplements and prescriptions your loved one is taking, including their potential side effects, and how different treatments might interact with each other. 

When it’s necessary, you should also consult with your loved one’s doctor about any alternatives to their current medicines. For instance, if your loved one has trouble taking pills, you could ask if the medication is available in liquid form. Always consult with a doctor before cutting or crushing any pills for your loved one, or attempting to change their dosage. 

Finally, make it a point to schedule routine “brown bag check ups,” where you and your loved one review all of the prescription drugs, vitamins, over-the-counter treatments, and supplements that they are currently taking with their healthcare professional. In between these sessions, make sure your loved one stays up-to-date on all doctor’s visits, including tests and follow-up appointments after a surgery or procedure. 

Looking for Help Caring for Your Aging Loved Ones?

From helping with medications to ensuring that your loved one is living an active and independent lifestyle, being a caregiver for an elderly adult can come with its fair share of challenges. Fortunately, you don’t have to go through it alone!

At Companions for Seniors, we’re here to help support the senior in your life with personalized companionship and care, giving them the service and attention they need — while giving you the respite you deserve.

Our mission is to help seniors live independently and with dignity in the comfort of their own home by empowering them to lead an active and enriched lifestyle, connecting them with their community, and nurturing meaningful relationships.

Our companions are trained and bonded, and can help provide a variety of services designed to help seniors remain in the comfort of their own homes, including providing assistance with housekeeping, activities of daily living (ADLs), driving services, and more.

We’re here to offer guidance and provide support, in whatever way we can. Get in touch online using our handy online portal, or give us a call at 866-910-9020 today.