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Multiple Medications Increase Risks for Seniors

Caregiver looking at prescriptions with elderly patient
Whether accompanying your mother to a doctor’s appointment or in response to a medical crisis, it’s critical to have your loved one's medical information easily and quickly accessible

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September 23, 2011

Keeping track of prescription medications could be a confusing and potentially dangerous task for many seniors. Resources such as the Senior Emergency Kit can help family caregivers stay on top of their loved one’s medications.

Q. My 80-year-old mother, who lives alone, takes a number of medications prescribed by several doctors. What are the risks, and what can I do?

Your mother, like other seniors who take various medications, runs an increased risk of accidental poisoning. According to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP), older patients have complex medication regimens, often involving multiple medications prescribed by several physicians that make them vulnerable to accidental poisonings.

That possibility for error makes communication vital between your mom and all of her doctors. In fact, in 2005, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations’ (JCAHO) Sentinel Event Database revealed that 63 percent of the reported mediation errors resulting in death or serious injury in hospitals were because of breakdowns in communication. And about half of those could have been avoided through effective medication reconciliation.

Missing dosages presents other problems. An estimated one-third to one-half of all patients in the United States don’t take their medications as prescribed, according to the New England Healthcare Institute (NEHI). Chronic-disease patients who do not consistently take their medications often experience preventable worsening of disease.

Among all patient groups, poor adherence poses an increased risk of hospitalizations, resulting in significant costs. For example, among diabetes patients, those with low levels of adherence have almost twice the annual health-care costs of those with high levels of adherence ($16,498 versus $8,886). According to the NEHI, patients who don’t take their medications properly jeopardize their health as well as put a strain on the health-care system.

Whether accompanying your mother to a doctor’s appointment or in response to a medical crisis, it’s critical to have your loved one's medical information easily and quickly accessible. The Home Instead Senior Care® network created the Caring for Your Parents: Senior Emergency KitSM, an information management tool and website.

This toolkit and other resources are part of the Answering the Call® program to help you be prepared for these situations. Consider the following tips, from the Answering the Call program, provided by the Home Instead Senior Care network and the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists (ASCP):

What a Senior Needs to Share With a Doctor:

  • Tell your doctor about all the medicines you are already taking. This includes prescription medicines and the medicines you buy without a prescription, such as aspirin, laxatives, vitamin supplements, and home remedies. It’s helpful to take along a written list or go to and fill out a medication tracker form to take along.
  • Tell your doctor what is important to you about your medicines. You may want a medicine with fewest side effects, or fewest doses to take each day. If you have trouble swallowing, you may want a liquid form of medicine. You may care most about cost (there may be a generic drug or another lower-cost medicine you can take), or you may want the medicine your doctor believes will work best.
  • Tell your doctor if you have any allergies to medications or if you have had any troubling side effects from medicines.
  • Tell your doctor if you have any illnesses or problems for which another doctor or health professional is treating you.
  • Tell your doctor if you are not taking your medicine as directed. For example, some people may stop taking their medicine, take a lower dose, or skip doses if they are having side effects. Your doctor needs to know about any changes in your treatment plan. Do not let guilty feelings or embarrassment keep you from telling your doctor this important information.

Companionship also can be an important safeguard. Medication reminders are one popular and vital service that CAREGiversSM from the local Home Instead Senior Care office provide to seniors. Remind your mom that a second set of eyes can add a measure of security and comfort to her life, and help her maintain her regular routine in her home for as long as possible.

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