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How to Avoid Drug Errors Associated With Age

Prevent prescription problems with a few simple steps

Family Caregiver Alliance

Older adults and people with disabilities may encounter challenges when taking medications. Resolving these problems can reduce the risk that someone will take the wrong medicine at the wrong time or miss their medication altogether.  

Consumers (and their caregivers) should alert doctors and pharmacists to any difficulties they have taking medications, including the following:

  • Memory: Difficulty remembering to take medications. The pharmacist can provide a variety of special pill boxes or other aids that re-mind a caregiver and senior to take medications. The devices range from low-tech, such as simple containers with compartments labeled for meals and bedtime, to high-tech, such as containers that beep when it’s time for a dose, or a special bottle cap that counts openings of a prescription bottle to tell if the day’s doses have been taken. For those with severe memory impairments, caregivers are key to the proper administration of all medicines. In addition, some aging-related service organizations offer medication reminder telephone calls for older persons with memory problems.
  • Vision: Difficulty reading labels on prescription labels and over-the-counter products. Pharmacists may be able to provide prescription labels in large print. Health care providers and caregivers can read the information on over-the-counter products for consumers with vision impairment. Magnifying glasses may also be helpful.
  • Hearing: Difficulty hearing instructions from health care professionals. Ask doctors, nurses, and pharmacists to speak louder and/or write down important information relevant to the safe use of medications. Caregivers can also be “the ears” for seniors with hearing impairments.
  • Dexterity: Difficulty opening bottles, inability to break tablets, problems handling medicines such as eye drops, inhalers for asthma and other lung disease, and insulin injections. These problems are common for people with arthritis and certain types of disabilities. Large, easy-open bottle tops are available for prescription medicines. If a prescription dose is one-half tablet, the pharmacist can split the tablets for you. Caregivers are key to assisting with the administration of eye drops, inhaled medications, injections, and other dosage forms that require fine motor skills. Again, pharmacies can provide instruction sheets on administration of medicines.
  • Swallowing: Difficulty swallowing tablets or capsules. Many prescription and over-the-counter products are available in a variety of dosage forms such as a liquid, skin patch, or suppository, greatly reducing difficulties associated with swallowing. Ask your pharmacist about alternative dosage forms.
  • Scheduling:  Difficulty taking medicines on a schedule.  One of the greatest challenges for older persons and caregivers is working medication schedules into daily routines. Special pill boxes and other aids can help. It’s essential that older people and caregivers devise a plan for medication administration that fits their daily schedule. For example, meal times or bedtimes can be used as cues for scheduling medication if mealtimes and bedtimes are regularly scheduled. Doctors and pharmacists can assist in developing a plan to best suit routines.

Based on content in the Family Caregiver Alliance fact sheet “Medications: A Double-Edged Sword.”

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