Medication Management for Caregivers

Tips for caregivers of aging parents and elderly adults

Medication management for caregivers of aging parents or elderly loved ones can be challenging. In fact, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Knowing the facts about medicines and older adults will help. Certainly, many adult children who are caregivers are responsible for their parents’ medication schedules. Likewise, even active older adults who care for themselves may need help taking medicines.

If you’re not sure if an older adult in your life needs support with medicine – ask! Don’t assume that medicine management is under control. The majority of older Americans take more than one medicine each day. Also, older people often take more medicines that any other age group. As a result, they are at greater risk for adverse reactions to their medicines.

Questions to figure out if older adults in your life need help managing their meds. Does he/she: 

  • Get upset if you ask questions about how they take their medicine?
  • Have more than one medical condition?
  • Use more than one medicine?
  • Have problems seeing or hearing?
  • Seem to have trouble getting around the house?
  • Experience memory problems?
  • Have difficulty or is unable to drive or walk safely to the pharmacy?

If you’ve answered “yes,” to any of these questions, the older adult in your life may need help with their meds.

So, where do you start?

Medication management for caregivers should start with a team approach. If possible, work together with the person in your care to set healthcare goals and plans to accomplish them. Furthermore, involve other family members. For example, siblings.

Use this checklist:

  1. Know what medicines are being taken. Go to one pharmacy for all prescriptions. This can help avoid drug interactions, lessen the chance of taking similar medicines prescribed by different providers, and act as a prescription renewal reminder.
  2. Maintain a medicine list with the drug name, what it’s taken for, the dosage, how often it’s taken and other details. Bring this to healthcare appointments.
  3. Go to medical appointments with the person in your care, if possible.  Share your concerns and take notes!
  4. Encourage writing down concerns before medical appointments. For example, is the medication helping? Are there side effects? Again, take notes! (10 Questions to Ask About the Medicines You Take)
  5. Review medicine labels to understand potential side effects or drug interactions.
  6. Make sure he/she can read, understand, and follow dosing instructions. Do they understand when to take the medication, forgetting a dose, or unable to tell pills apart?
  7. Ask if help is needed putting together a medicine schedule.
  8. Ask how he/she takes the medicine. Is the drug being taken safely and correctly to maximize the benefits?
  9. Stress not making decisions about medicines alone, without a healthcare professional. Suddenly stopping some medicines can be dangerous.
  10. If your parents have vision problems or difficulty with written English, suggest color-coding prescription bottles and put colors on a chart that gives directions for each drug. Ask the pharmacist for large print labels. If arthritis is an issue, request non-child proof caps. It’s essential to store medicines out of sight and reach of children.
  11. Make taking medicines part of a daily routine. For example, if a parent always has a morning cup of tea, leave a reminder by the tea cups.
  12. Periodically discuss “deprescribing” with the doctor. Review all meds to see if any can be safely stopped.

Watch for side effects or adverse reactions that could be confused with signs of aging

Often, people mistake undesirable effects of medicine for the “natural” effects of aging. However, consider the possibility that any of the following may be caused by medication:

  • Agitation or anxiety
  • Confusion or memory loss
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased sexual drive
  • Depression
  • Weakness
  • Fainting or blackouts

Sometimes, parents do not tell their children if they are having problems such as dizziness, which may be related to their medicines. For instance, dizziness can lead to falls. See if your parents have bruises or discolorations on their body. This could be a sign of falling caused by an adverse medicine reaction. Keep in mind, a person could experience a side effect even if he or she has taken the medicine safely for many years. And most importantly, if a person ever has any trouble swallowing or breathing after taking a medicine, he or she should not take any more of it and go to the nearest emergency department right away. They could be suffering from a potentially life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.

If you suspect an adverse drug reaction, encourage your parent to talk with his or her healthcare provider. Bring it to the provider’s attention yourself, if necessary. Talk to your parents about the importance of seeing their physician every 3 to 6 months for a check-up if they are on long- term therapy. Suggest that they ask the physician if their medicines are still necessary.

Remember, any medicine can cause any side effect in the right person. The warnings given by prescribers or pharmacists only cover the common side effects, not the rare or unusual ones.

Work with your parents to find outside help when needed

Many services are available that can be useful in assisting older adults with their medicines. Suggest that your parent talk (or reach out yourself) to the local Area Agency on Aging, Visiting Nurses Association, or the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists to find out about:

  • A formal, in-home evaluation by health professionals of medication status and needs.
  • Regular telephone contacts by volunteers (who could help remind about and monitor medicine-taking and reinforce positive habits).
  • Periodic home visits by health professionals to monitor progress, give advice, or teach skills related to medicine use.
  • Classes in the community that teach older adults to coordinate their own care and manage their medicines wisely.

Be helpful, but don’t take responsibility for your parents’ medicine use if you don’t need to

As long as your parents are not confused or forgetful, it is healthy for them to stay in charge of their own lives. They may welcome your interest and assistance if you let them know that your role is supportive. Look for natural ways to bring up medicine issues and be diplomatic.  Just like supporting a loved one who might be trying to lose weight or give up smoking, it is important not to criticize their use of medicines. A positive, supportive approach works best.

Learn More

Educational toolkit for caregivers

As our population ages, more people with chronic and disabling conditions are choosing to live at home or in the community, which means that more family members and close friends are being engaged as caregivers. The materials in this toolkit provide medicine safety tips for people who are caring for senior loved ones. Know the facts about medicines and older adults.