Make sure medications don’t hurt you

Editor’s Note

Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.

While we may think the abuse and misuse of prescription medication is only a problem among our nation’s younger population, the risk of older Americans suffering complications from the improper use of prescribed medicines is actually higher than we might imagine. According to research, two-thirds of seniors are not taking their prescriptions the way they should.

Misusing prescription medications can have serious repercussions on an older person’s physical and mental well-being and may result in problems such as addiction, malnutrition, dizziness and falls, compromised cognitive ability, mood disorders, and in some cases, even death.

Some older adults may be skipping a dose or taking less medication than called for in the prescription, while others fail to get their prescriptions filled altogether. Seniors also put themselves at risk by taking more medicine than prescribed, taking medicine that was prescribed for someone else, or taking medicine for a reason other than the one for which it was originally prescribed.

Aside from those who are not following the directions on their prescriptions, other seniors may be misusing their medications unintentionally because of physical or mental changes that can occur as part of the aging process. Sometimes changes in the body can affect the way a person processes a medication, while other times, a person may develop a tolerance to a prescribed medicine.

Declining eyesight, declining hearing or both can lead to confusion about how a medication is supposed to be taken. Changes in vision can make it difficult to correctly read the prescription bottle, which in turn may result in the incorrect dose being taken. Likewise, hearing problems may make it difficult to understand medication directions given by the physician or pharmacist.

A decline in cognitive function is another factor that could lead to directions being misunderstood. Also, if memory loss is an issue, an older adult may forget to take their medicine, or they may be afraid that they have forgotten to take it and take it again, resulting in a double dose.

In a day when the practice of medicine has become highly specialized, people are also more likely to take a number of medications prescribed by different doctors who aren’t always in contact with one another, making the risk of drug interaction a bigger problem than in the past.

Despite the challenges, there are steps that seniors can take to prevent them from taking their prescriptions incorrectly.

Seniors should keep an updated list of all prescription and over-the-counter medicines they take. That list should also include all vitamins and supplements and any herbal remedies. It should be shared with all health care providers who may be prescribing medication.

They should ask the pharmacist to explain any directions for taking medication, such as whether or not it should be taken with food, how many pills should be taken and how often the medication should be taken. Those who have trouble understanding a doctor’s or pharmacist’s directions because of hearing or cognitive impairments should ask a friend or family member to sit in on appointments and pharmacy visits. It may also be possible to make a recording of the visit, with the doctor’s permission, so it can be played back later.

Older adults who have been taking the same medication over a long period of time should check with their doctor to make sure it’s still effective and doing the job it was intended to do and that no side effects related to physiological changes in the patient are developing.

Prescription medications should only be taken by the person they were prescribed for and should not be shared or taken by anyone else, even if the symptoms are similar. Prescriptions should be locked up or stored in a part of the home not regularly used by visitors to keep them safe from theft or misuse by others. Anyone who suspects their prescription medicine has been misused by someone else should immediately report it to their doctor.

Unused or expired medications should be disposed of properly when they’re no longer needed. Keeping unused medications increases the chances that they will be misused. Prescriptions should never be disposed of in the trash or flushed down the toilet. Many hospitals and police departments regularly hold prescription drop off events where unneeded medicine can be left with authorities who can dispose of it properly.


Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines and familiar surroundings. To set up an appointment for a no-obligation in-home assessment, call 330-332-1203.


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