Medication Safety for Seniors
Many older adults are prescribed medications to manage health conditions and symptoms. Research has shown, however, that many adults (of all ages) don’t take their medications as directed – some don’t even fill their prescriptions. If you or a senior loved one takes prescription drugs, and especially if you take multiple medications, it’s worth taking the time to review a few safety tips.
Taking medications as directed will help you or your loved one get the most benefit from them. Another good reason to follow instructions carefully: seniors are more sensitive to the effects of drugs, due to age-related physical changes such as lower muscle mass, higher body fat, less water in the body, and lower organ efficiency. Following directions will help you avoid any negative effects.
Tips for safe medication use
- Keep a list of all the medications and supplements, both prescribed and over-the-counter, that you or your senior loved one currently takes. The Canada Safety Council recommends including: medicine, vitamins, minerals, natural health products, traditional medicines, and any sprays, patches, laxatives, cough and cold medication, painkillers, injections, creams and eye, ear and nose drops. Your list could also include medical conditions, allergies and drug reactions. Bring this list with you to medical appointments and the pharmacy.
- Stick to one pharmacy. It is easier to track prescriptions and avoid adverse drug reactions if you consistently use the same pharmacy.
- Understand your medications. When you see your doctor or pharmacist, ask if any of your medications have been stopped or changed; which ones you should continue taking; how to take them and for how long; how you can tell if the medication is working, and what side effects are possible; and what follow-up is required (tests or appointments). For reference, download a handy list from SafeMedicationUse.ca. (Additional languages are also available.)
- Review pharmacy labels with the pharmacist. Discuss the labels with your pharmacist and make sure you understand them. If your pharmacy offers printed information about your medication, read it carefully, and ask about anything you don’t understand.
- Follow the directions. Take your medication exactly as prescribed: the correct dosage at the right time(s) of day, for as long as your physician recommended. Don’t crush, cut or split pills, and don’t open capsules and tablets, unless your pharmacist confirms it’s okay to do so. If you experience side effects, or if you feel better and aren’t sure you need the treatment anymore, contact your physician. Never alter your dosage or stop taking a medication on your own.
- Never share medications with others. Giving someone your medication or taking someone else’s medication is very risky.
- Pay attention when assisting a senior loved one with their medications. Life can be very hectic, and it’s easy to make a mistake while dispensing medication if you’re distracted or rushing.
How to safely store medication
Did you know that medications can be affected by light, air, heat and moisture? To ensure they remain effective, ask your pharmacist how to store them properly. Most medications can be kept at room temperature in a cool, dry place. A medicine cabinet is not a good place, because bathrooms are often hot and humid. The kitchen is not a good choice, either, since appliances generate heat. Always keep medications out of reach of children and pets.
Periodically check your home for expired or unused prescription or over-the-counter medications and natural health products. For safe disposal, take them to any pharmacy. Never flush medications down the toilet or sink, and avoid throwing them in the garbage.
Taking too many medications?
Research published by the Canadian Institutes of Health Information in 2016 found that almost two-thirds of seniors were prescribed five or more different drug classes. More than a quarter were prescribed 10 or more different drug classes, and 8.4% were prescribed 15 or more. (Read about the issue of polypharmacy, which means taking five or more prescription medications.)
Why is this a concern? Medications are prescribed to treat health conditions and manage symptoms, or to counteract the side effects of treatments. Over time, however, some medications may become less effective, or patients no longer need them. In addition, taking a high number of medications can increase the risk of negative side effects, medication-related safety incidents, hospitalization, admission to long-term care, and death.
To reduce the risk of harm, it’s important to do regular medication reviews with a physician, pharmacist or nurse. This will help ensure that all drugs (both prescribed and over-the-counter) are still needed, and it will help prevent potentially harmful drug-drug interactions. Don’t reduce a dosage or stop taking a drug on your own – always seek professional medical advice first.
Travelling with medications
Going on a vacation? Be sure to bring an adequate supply of medications, with enough for an extra day or two in case you’re delayed on the way home. Keep all drugs in their original, labelled containers. Bring along the original prescriptions and, if possible, a note from your physician.
If you’re flying somewhere, keep all medications and medical supplies (such as needles or syringes) in your carry-on bag, in case your checked luggage is delayed or misplaced. Prescription medications are exempt from liquid restrictions, but you must show them to the screening officers at airport security. If your medications have specific storage requirements, plan for this in advance, taking into account the climate at your destination. (Learn more about travelling with medication.)
A note about cannabis: When flying within Canada, adults can carry up to 30 grams of recreational cannabis in their carry-on or checked luggage. If you have more than 30 grams, be ready to show medical documentation. If you’re flying outside of Canada, it’s illegal to bring cannabis – even if you have medical documentation, and even if cannabis is legal in your destination country. Learn more about cannabis and international travel, and talk to your physician about alternative therapies.
Bayshore Home Health offers a wide range of home care services, including medication reminders, to help Canadians live independently for as long as possible. Contact us at 1-877-289-3997 for details.