When Seniors Misuse Medications

March 19, 2018

If you have a senior parent, chances are good they’re on at least a few prescription medications for chronic or acute health problems. According to the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists, seniors 65-69 take an average of 15 prescriptions per year, with the majority taking four or more at a time. This practice of assigning multiple concurrent medications, known as polypharmacy, can pose significant challenges for anyone having to manage conflicting dosing requirements and other guidelines. Factor in the cognitive and physical impairments common among seniors and elderly, and you have a potentially serious or even deadly situation brewing.

The fact is that prescription medication misuse among the elderly has more than doubled over the last decade, with almost all of it accidental. Here are the most common reasons behind this phenomenon, and what you can do to prevent it:

  • Memory Loss: This is probably the most critical issue when it comes to Mom managing her med schedule. If she’s developing dementia symptoms, or even experiencing milder, age-appropriate memory lapses, she’s at significant risk of taking too much medication, or not enough. If Mom doesn’t have an onsite caregiver to oversee her daily doses, get her a pill manager to ensure she’s taking her meds safely. Many now have wearable alarm devices and other features that make it even easier to prevent issues. The Daily Caring website has some great recommendations to check out.
  • Vision Decline: Seniors are prone to macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts, and other ailments that cause impaired vision. If Dad can’t read his prescription labels properly, there’s a good chance he’s going to make a dosing error. One easy step is to make sure his pharmacist prints out his labels in large font; pharmacies offer this as a regular courtesy and consider it a reasonable request.
  • Hearing Impairment: Here’s another common issue among the elderly, and another potential barrier to healthy med taking. Make sure Mom wears her hearing aid to all medical appointments, and be certain that her practitioners and pharmacists are aware of her hearing deficit. They should be providing detailed written instructions at every appointment so that there’s no guesswork around proper med dispensing.
  • Insufficient Income: Sadly, seniors on fixed incomes are at particular risk for medication misuse because the cost is simply too overwhelming. With even the cost of many generic medications going up, many are forced to split pills or forego doses all together, putting their health at serious risk. The Partnership for Prescription Assistance is an excellent free service that helps applicants find prescription assistance programs they could be eligible for. Local pharmacies can also be helpful in finding discounts, as can the Benefits Checkup site from the NCOA.
  • Swallowing Difficulties: Seniors with certain health conditions like acid reflux, Parkinson’s, or other neurological disorders can often have trouble swallowing, which can cause big problems with dosing. Often they’ll try crushing pills or breaking them up in food and drink, which can wreak havoc with how drugs are meant to be metabolized. Make sure the dispensing pharmacist is clear with Dad on which medications are OK to be split up or crushed, and find out if there are liquid equivalents he could try.
  • Isolation: Seniors living alone are sometimes less likely to follow a prescription regimen, particularly if its demanding or cumbersome. There are certain home health aide support services that Medicare will pay for; you can also look into volunteers who might be available at local senior centers or Dad’s house of worship.