Managing Medications: Take Your Pills on Time

“Medications don’t work in patients who don’t take them.”  (C. Everett Koop, M.D., former Surgeon General)

            Forgetting meds is common for people of all ages, but it is especially critical to elders with chronic medical conditions.  It’s been estimated that one-fourth of all nursing home admissions are ultimately due to mismanaged meds. If you take your medications within an hour either side of the usual time, most meds will work properly. But if you miss doses (for example, entirely forgetting the morning or evening pills), you could be endangering your health.

            I have spoken with hundreds of seniors about medication management.  A minority of them have very effective med habits, but many more consider med-taking a nuisance and are inclined to downplay the frequency of their neglected pills.  They tell me they “almost always” take their meds on time, but “almost” isn’t good enough for many drugs, like blood pressure pills, heart medications, or diabetic drugs.  Even two or three weekly bouts of missed pills may significantly lower the drug’s effectiveness.

            If you have trouble remembering to take pills on time, or know someone who does, become proactive about it.  Make a plan to improve your medication habits, using cues to help you remember.  Sticky notes, or taped- or tacked-up reminders can be posted near items you are likely to see around med time. If you take meds in the morning, put a reminder by the coffee pot, on the toaster, or by the cat food. Meds taken at dinner time can be prompted by a note on the refrigerator or the silverware drawer. I’ve seen some creative ways to remember meds, like the girl who enlisted her father’s dog to remind him of medication times, by placing a sticky note on the leash. When the dog asked to go out, every morning and every evening, he reminded Dad to take his pills.

            If you are often away from home at medication time, plan ahead to take the pills with you. Small, clear baggies are available at drugstores for this purpose. Whether you’re at a dinner party or out bowling, step aside for a minute to take your pills and keep your med schedule on track.

            Multiple medications can make for a confusing, complicated drug schedule. Making them manageable can be a challenge. One innovation is “blister packaging” where the drugstore prepares monthly prescriptions in individual daily doses. Rather than a bag full of pill bottles, the pharmacy hands you a sheet of individually-prepared pockets for the next 30 days, each labeled with the date and time it should be taken. It is obviously much easier to pop out the medications for “Friday, May 30, morning meds” and take them, then it is to spend ten minutes selecting the right pills several times a day. If your pharmacy cannot provide blister packaging, purchase a weekly pill organizer (available at drugstores) to create a weekly version for yourself.

            Lastly, let me remind seniors and their spouses or children that medications are prescribed for a reason,  Assistance with preparing weekly meds or reminder cues can help an elder stay healthy and remain independent in other aspects of his daily life.