Caregiver Guide: Using Medicines Safely

Understanding the Problem

People age 65 and over buy more than 25 percent of all prescription medicines and 30 percent of all non-prescription (over-the-counter) medicines sold in this country.

Older people are more likely than younger people to have long-term illnesses such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease that require taking medicines on a regular basis.  Because older people often have several different health problems, it is common for them to take several different medicines.
When compared to younger people, older individuals tend to be more sensitive to the effects of many medicines.

For example, a medicine such as Valium (diazepam) may stay in an 80-year-old body four times as long as it does in a 40-year-old body. The liver and the kidneys break down and remove most drugs from the body.  As people age, these organs may not work as rapidly as they used to, and drugs may leave the body more slowly, sometimes causing side effects.  So, when drugs are prescribed over the phone or by a healthcare provider who does not know the older person well, ask to be sure it is the proper dose for an older person. 

You should keep the healthcare providers and pharmacist informed about all medicines that the older person is taking, including non-prescription medicines.

These include:

  • All prescription medicines from any healthcare provider, including eye drops

  • Non-prescription medicines including vitamins, minerals, antihistamines, sleeping pills, laxatives, cold medicine, and  antacids

  • Folk remedies or nontraditional products - such as herbs

  • "Social" drugs (such as alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine)

The healthcare provider needs this information because non-prescription medicines can interact with each other as well as with prescribed medicines in ways that could be harmful to the patient.

They can also cause side effects that the healthcare provider may have to treat.  It will be helpful to the healthcare provider, in making diagnoses, to know all the medicines that the patient is taking.

Pharmacists are able to give you information about side effects of medicines and even how they can interact with each other. 

Ask the pharmacist for this information and ask any other questions you have about the medicines when you have prescriptions filled or refilled - it may prevent a serious problem.

Your goals are to:

  • Follow the healthcare provider’s and pharmacist's instructions. If you don't understand their instructions, ask for clarification

  • Know all medicines and supplements that are being taken and their side effects

  • Know if the medicines and supplements being taken by the patient are safe to use together

  • Ask for generic medicines in order to keep costs lower

  • Watch for side effects from the medicines and report them in a timely manner to the healthcare provider or pharmacist

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Last Updated July 2015