Aging Parents and Medications: Missed? Mixed Up?


This past week geriatrician, Mark S. Lachs, MD, author of Treat Me, Not My Age: A Doctor’s Guide to Getting the Best Health Care as You or a Loved One Gets Olderwas one of two presenters at a symposium I attended: “Helping or Harming? Navigating the Supplement and Medication Maze.” Its Sponsor: NY-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center’s Women’s Health Center.

I’ve written previously about medications: “Medications: Taking Them or Perhaps Skipping Them” and “One Size Doesn’t Fit All.” Dr. Lachs’s presentation illuminated, with research and professional expertise, this important aspect of helping parents age well.

He spoke about “the collision of drugs with an aging body that creates issues;” and told us that as many as 25% of medicare hospital admissions may be due in some way to an adverse drug event. I think most of us were astonished at this statistic, but when you think twice about it, it’s understandable.

The 2002 statistics from the Alliance for Aging–that dealing with 3 medical conditions is average for a 75-year-old (see “Medications” post)–seem basically unchanged in 2011. By age 75 people are dealing with 2-3 medical conditions that require prescribed medications, according to Dr. Lachs. Check out your friends. I’m guessing many women, at least, have one condition–bone density–if not more. Add to this the vitamin supplements we take and it adds up to a lot of pills. And a lot of pills can lead to confusion (even danger sometimes) for aging/older/elderly parents and possibly for us.

While younger people may be more adept at multi-tasking while eating breakfast, for example, and remembering that they’ve taken all pills–including vitamins–older people may be distracted and forget whether or not they’ve taken one of their pills; then either skip–or take an extra. Not good!

Some people dump all pills in a ziplock bag to take on vacation, also not so good as it necessitates remembering which pill is which and making certain to take the right pill at the right time. Scarier is the fact that elderly people, in their own homes, can become confused and forget if the big pink pill is for hives and the small pink pill is for heart or vice versa (my example). This helpful website displays a color picture of every medication you search, which can then be printed out. Since dosage–along with “when,” and “with or without” food–is important, add that information if appropriate.

Dump the picture(s) in your ziplock bag. Dr. Lachs recommends attaching the pill’s picture to each container of older/elderly parents’ pills, making them easily identifiable… helping to prevent confusion.

The value of geriatricians to the aging population is beyond measure as we try to help aging parents. And Dr. Lachs goes beyond even beyond this. He is a highly regarded professional with an impressive list of accomplishments, and a gift for providing important, practical information in an interesting, understandable, way we can all relate to–in his book and in his presentation.

Aging Parents: Taking Medications–or Perhaps Skipping Them?

How difficult is it to remember to take medications? Do the number of medications and a good memory determine that? Or is there more to consider? (Of course, read on.)

For young adults it’s easy.  Most have few prescription medications and probably some vitamins–no doubt often gulped down at the same time each day. But what about older people and aging parents?

People over 55, on average, take  6-8 medications daily, according to a July 5, 2011 NY Times article.  I wonder if that number includes vitamins.

Dealing with 3 medical conditions is average for a 75-year-old, according to the Alliance for Aging Research presented in a Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter article (August 2002). This necessitates about 5 prescription drugs simultaneously, although the article says the number could go as high as 15.

There are of course organizers–from the inexpensive plastic pill-organizing boxes to the more expensive technological products like Philips and Guardian that remind people to take their medications.

But this may be only part of the issue.  The July 5, 2011 NY Times article, “When ‘Take as Directed’ Poses a Challenge” addresses  another important aspect. It never occurred to me that “take every 12 hours” and “take twice a day” could cause confusion or be burdensome.  In our efforts to help parents, who take medications, age well, this article is more than worthwhile….and if you wonder if aging parents may be skipping medications, it’s a must-read.