Reviewed by: Susy Salvo-Wendt, telehealth specialist
Updated: March 11, 2021
Did you know that more than four in 10 older adults take five or more prescription medications a day, and nearly 20% take 10 drugs or more? That’s according to a report by Lown Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
Keeping track of so many prescriptions along with other over-the-counter medications and vitamins can be confusing enough. But for seniors who may also grapple with confusion or memory loss, not remembering to take the right meds at the right time can be even more of a potential problem.
“To date, medication safety research has focused overwhelmingly on institutional based care provided by paid healthcare professionals, with limited research in at home care medication safety,” says Susy Salvo-Wendt, Summit Healthcare telehealth specialist. “This critical gap in our current understanding of medication safety in the home sector is particularly evident with the elderly who can manage multiple chronic illness and a complex palette of medications, along with other care needs.” Here are some strategies to help seniors remember to take their daily medication at the right times.
Keep medication organized and lists up-to-date
“Determining the correct medication list is vital,” says Jami Carder, BSN RN, a home care nurse with Visiting Nurse’s Association of Cape Cod. Keep a running list for the patient that is the most current, and make a copy for their refrigerator, their wallet, and if applicable, take a photo on their smartphone so it’s always handy. Don’t forget to remove medications that are no longer prescribed, and be sure the patient understands when new ones are added or dosages/frequency change. “Ensuring medications are not expired is also an important part of medication management,” says Carder.
Manage and label OTC medicine
Everyday prescribed medication should be stored separately from other over-the-counter “as needed” items (like cold tablets, fever reducers, or pills for stomach ailments) so there’s no confusion. A caregiver may also want to write the proper dosage for those items on the bottles or boxes using a permanent marker or a sticker (i.e. take two tablets every six hours), especially if the person has trouble with seeing small print.
Take medication at meals
Some meds are supposed to be taken in the morning, while others should be taken in the afternoon or at night. Keeping medications on the dining table to be taken at breakfast, lunch and/or dinner meal times can provide a visual cue so that the person is less likely to forget.
Develop a medication routine
If meds have to be taken on an empty stomach or just before bed, then the mealtime trick might not work. However, there are other ways to make taking one’s meds part of an elderly person’s typical schedule. Maybe medication can be kept on the nightstand to take right before bed. Or, taking meds might be paired with other daily routines, such as remembering to take them when the evening news begins or when some other favorite daily show comes on.
Get a reminder device for medications
Multiple medications can be more complex to track, which is why the ability to set multiple medication reminder alarms for the elderly can help prompt them to take a specific medication at the right time. Some medication reminder alarms will chime or ring, while others may use a voice command that says something like “take your evening pill.”
Create a medication checklist
Often, seniors may think they took their pills when they didn’t, or forget they took them and then double dose – either scenario could be dangerous. For elderly people who prefer “old school” pen and paper, a master checklist that lists all of the daily medications and dosages that they can check off each day can be a big help. A caregiver can make up weekly or monthly charts for them to use, or it can be set up in a weekly planner or on a wall or desk calendar.
Use a medication sorting service
“Many pharmacies offer bubble packs which contain all morning meds in one bubble, nighttime meds in another, and they send one month at a time,” says Carder. This takes the guesswork out of having to deal with opening a bunch of pill bottles each day, or spending time filling up a large pillbox, which may be difficult if the senior has dexterity issues.
Fill up a pill organizer
Many caregivers find that pre-arranging pill organizers either in weekly or monthly intervals is the easiest way to make sure the elderly take their medications each day. “They can look at Monday morning, and if it’s full, then they know they need to take them,” says Carder. “This method is most successful if the patient has someone to fill the cassette for them.” There are even some smart pill systems with built-in alarms that chime or use voice reminders so seniors remember. If seniors will be filling the pillboxes themselves, it’s important that a caregiver watches them the first few times. “If they have trouble remembering everything, then it’s important for a family member to take over responsibility for filling it,” says Carder.
Keep track of when prescriptions need to be refilled
Staying on top of when medications are running low is also important, says Carder. “If their insurance allows for auto-refill, then set that up for them so they don’t have to worry about missing any doses,” she says. “Having someone check on both prescription and non-prescription amounts on a regular basis will avoid last minute trips to the pharmacy.”
Set up a medication reminder app
For the tech savvy seniors out there, there are medication reminder apps that will send push notifications to the elderly person’s smartphone or tablet. To ease them into using their smart device, a caregiver might start by getting the senior used to technology by texting them at their regular medication times, and then transitioning to a medication reminder app that can automate the whole process. Deciding which medication reminder strategies are best for an elderly patient requires regular assessments, says Carder. “[Many of] these options are reliant on the patient having the ability to either read or remember, which many have no problem with, while others have difficulty,” she says. “Regardless of which way you choose to address medication management, it’s important to include your loved one, and all medical providers involved, with this discussion.”
OnlineDoctor.com interviewed this expert for article guidance:
Jami Carder, RN, a home care nurse with Visiting Nurse’s Association of Cape Cod