What Older Adults Can Do to Manage Medications

There are several steps you can take to lower your chances of overmedication and negative reactions to medicines. Keep the following tips in mind for safe medication use. Always ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist if you have any questions about your medications.

Make a list

Keep a list of all the medications you take—both non-prescription and prescription. This list should include all medications including prescriptions, over-the-counter (OTC) medications, herbal remedies, vitamins and other supplements, and creams and ointments.  You should also write down the doses and what they are for, and bring the list with you whenever you see a healthcare professional. You can also write down any questions you have about your medicines, so you don’t have to try to remember during the short time you have with your provider.

Review your medications regularly

Whenever you see your healthcare provider, make sure to go over your medication list and questions with them, especially after you’ve been in the hospital or seen by another provider. This way, they will know what new medications and supplements you are taking or any changes that have been made. They can also check whether the medications might be causing side effects, or could cause side effects, if taken along with a new medication.

Read all prescription and labels carefully. You will find the following information:

  • instructions on how to take the medication
  • what it should or should not be taken with
  • the potential for medication interactions

Look out for Side Effects

Ask what side effects your medications can cause, and watch for them. If you think you may be having a bad reaction to a medication, or if you think a medication is not working, tell your healthcare provider as soon as possible. However, don’t stop taking a medication without first checking with a healthcare provider.

Ask about Over-the-Counter Medications

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are sold at pharmacies, grocery stores, gas stations, or discount stores. You can buy these medicines on your own without a prescription or direction. However, just because you can buy these medications without a prescription, doesn’t mean that they are safer or have fewer side effects than a prescription medication. Some OTC medications can make your condition worse, cause side effects, or may interact with another medicine you may be taking.

Examples of OTC medications include:

  • Tylenol (acetaminophen), a pain medicine
  • Allegra (fexofenadine), an allergy medicine
  • Tums (calcium carbonate), a stomach acid medicine

Some OTC medicine labels are for younger people. Make sure to ask your healthcare provider what the correct dose of any OTC medication should be for you and be careful not to take more than recommended.

Review Medications If You’re in the Hospital

If you are in the hospital, make sure the hospital team knows about all the prescription and OTC medications, vitamins, supplements, and herbal products you take at home. While in the hospital, the hospital team will be responsible for giving you the medicines you need. Do not take any medications on your own during your hospital stay.

Sometimes, you may be prescribed new medications during your hospital stay. Ask if you need to continue taking them after you leave the hospital.

Look Out For Inappropriate Medications

Experts from the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) suggest that there are certain medications that may be inappropriate for older adults to take. Therefore, in many cases, older adults should avoid them or use them with caution. Whenever you or an older adult in your care is prescribed a new medication, ask why it’s being prescribed and if it is an appropriate medication for your age and your condition.

See the AGS Beers Criteria for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults section for more information. The Criteria identify medications that may have greater risks than benefits for people age 65 and older.

If a medication you are taking is listed in the AGS Beers Criteria, talk to your healthcare provider.  Ask if there might be a safer alternative. Keep in mind that if a medication you take is on the AGS Beers Criteria, it still may be a reasonable choice for you. The way you respond to a medication can differ from the way other people respond to it. Medications included in the AGS Beers Criteria are “potentially inappropriate,” but can be reasonable choices for some older adults.

Take Your Medication Properly

As many as 50% of older adults may not follow their healthcare provider’s recommendations about how to use their medications properly.

For older adults, difficulties taking medications include:

  • Difficulty reading and understanding directions on labels. The print may be too small and directions may be unclear.
    • Be sure to talk with your pharmacist about directions when you pick up your medications.
  • Trouble opening medicine containers, pouring medications, or even filling a glass of water.
    • Your pharmacist can give you a medication cap that is easy to open.
  • Healthcare providers not providing enough information about the importance of taking medications properly. It is especially important for medications used to treat conditions with no obvious symptoms, such as high blood pressure or cholesterol.
    • Ask your healthcare provider about what your medication is prescribed for and how it benefits your health.
  • Worry about possible side effects of certain medicines. This is especially the case for newly prescribed medications or those associated with serious side effects.
    • Talk with your provider or pharmacist about side effects you should watch for and how common they are, and call your provider if you have them.

Some older adults may worry about telling their healthcare provider that they are not taking medications properly or following directions. There are many possible reasons for this. Some older adults may be unable to afford their medications. Others may not understand or remember how often to take their medications,how much to take, or how long to continue taking them.

If you have trouble taking your medication or care for an older adult who has difficulties, discuss it with your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider is likely to have easy-to-follow solutions for many of these medication challenges. Remember that medications are made to manage your conditions very well, but they do not work if you don’t use them properly.


Last Updated August 2020