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Medication Madness

How to make sure your parents are taking their medications correctly 

It’s an inescapable fact that as our parents age there is an increased dependence on medication. Elderly adults in America take more medications now than ever before. The main reason is that while our aging population is living longer, they are also suffering from more chronic conditions for which drugs are prescribed. According to United States Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the safe and proper use of medications, adults in America over 65 years of age consume more than 30% of all prescription medications and buy over 40% of all over the counter (OTC) medications. A recent study by the group found the average person over 65 takes as many as two to seven prescription medications every day.  

"A brown paper bag checkup is the single best thing that patients can do to avoid medication mistakes and cut down on unnecessary medications." – Douglas Paauw, M.D.
There are many reasons to be concerned with aging adults taking so many medications, not the least of which is the growing problem of overmedication. As our bodies age many internal processes change and slow down. This change in metabolism also changes how drugs are absorbed, metabolized, transported and eventually excreted from the body. The elderly person is at greater risk for unsafe drug interactions. Many drugs will not work at all when taken in conjunction with other drugs, or can have harmful, even deadly, side effects – even when mixed with OTC medications, which are often perceived as “safe.” According to the Minnesota Poison Control System, almost 40% of all adverse drug reactions reported each year involve people over 60 years old.
How do I keep my parents safe?
There are steps we each can take to make sure our aging parents take the medications they need correctly. Actually according to Douglas Paauw, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, a brown bag may hold the key to keeping your parents safe. Dr. Paauw suggests a “brown paper bag checkup,” which entails taking all of your parent's medications, supplements, OTC medications, everything, putting them in a brown paper bag and bringing them to your parent's doctor. [The check-up] “is the single best thing that patients can do to avoid medication mistakes and cut down on unnecessary medications," says Paauw, “But I would estimate that only about 10 percent of people actually do it."
You can also help your aging parents to avoid adverse drug reactions by:

  • Making sure all of their medications are labeled clearly and that they understand how to follow the label’s instructions.
  • Be sure they read the label before taking each and every dose to ensure they are taking the proper amount of the proper medication.
  • Make sure your parents are familiar with what their medications should look like. Have them examine every medication they open before they take it and look for any pills or capsules that may look different from what they are used to.
  • Make sure that every health care provider your mother or father sees is aware of every medication he or she is taking – that includes dentists. Make sure all health practitioners know about all medications including OTC drugs, herbal remedies and dietary supplements your parent may be taking.
  • If your parents travel, remind them to always take all of their medications with them in a carry-on and not to pack them.
  • Make sure to ask your parents’ health care provider or pharmacist if they are to avoid alcohol with any of the medications they are taking.
  • Have your folks keep an organized record and schedule for all the drugs they are taking.
  • Instruct your parents to never take their medication in the dark, always in a well-lighted room, and if they need glasses be sure they wear them when taking their meds.
  • Tell your parents that they are never, ever to take a medication prescribed for a friend, neighbor or anyone other than themselves by their own physician.
  • Be sure that all of your parents’ medications are kept only in their original containers. Tell them not to store medications in the refrigerator unless they have been specifically instructed to do so.
  • Be sure that the number of the Poison Control Center is clearly visible somewhere in the household – 1-800-222-1222 and let your parents know that they can always call the center if they have questions about drug interactions, side effects, how to identify a pill, or about overdoses and accidental poisonings.