When we get to our 50s or 60s, many of us become long-distance caregivers. For us, the holidays often provide an opportunity to visit elderly parents or other relatives and check in on how they’re doing.

We can gain personal insight as to whether they remain safe living alone. In addition, we can identify any additional assistance they might need.

One area that I sometimes see overlooked is medication management. When I worked as a home health nurse, I discovered all sorts of unsettling medication issues in the cabinets and drawers of my clients’ homes.

If at all possible, I encourage you to find a time to sit down with your family member and review all of the medications they keep in their home.

Expired Medications

It’s true that some medications are perfectly safe to take beyond the expiration date printed on the bottle. However, other meds quickly lose their potency, and it’s not effective to take them after they’ve expired. Insulin, nitroglycerin, inhalers, and certain anticonvulsants are just a few examples.

Another concern involves liquid medications. When past the expiration date, liquids can become contaminated with bacteria and other organisms. This could cause serious harm. For example, an eye infection could result if contaminated eye drops are used.

My advice is to get rid of expired medications right away. It’s simply not worth the risk.

Leftover Antibiotics

It’s not uncommon to find leftover antibiotic pills after an older adult has recovered from an infection. When a person feels better, they might think they don’t need the medication anymore, so they stop taking it.

Besides increasing the possibility of a relapse, not taking the entire series of pills increases the chance of developing a bacterial strain that’s resistant to certain antibiotics.

Sometimes I see clients begin taking leftover antibiotics when they develop new symptoms. Worse yet, a client might give leftover antibiotics to a spouse.

This is not a good idea because different types of infections require different antibiotics. Furthermore, an antibiotic that’s appropriate for one person could be dangerous for another.

Herbs & Supplements

Many people believe that over-the-counter herbs and supplements are safe because they’re natural. What they don’t realize is that these products have their own potential side effects and can be harmful to people with certain health conditions.

For example, many older adults take melatonin to help them sleep. This product has the potential to increase blood sugar levels and could cause problems for diabetics.

There’s also the possibility that an herb or supplement could alter the effectiveness of a prescribed medication. One example is the blood thinner, warfarin. Several herbs increase the potency of warfarin, potentially leading to excessive bleeding.

This doesn’t mean that older adults should never take herbs or supplements. What’s important is that they always let their physician know which over-the-counter products they’re taking. In addition, they should never start taking something new until it’s been reviewed by their physician.

Taking Medications Incorrectly

Sadly, I’ve encountered some older adults who cut their pills in half because they’re having difficulty paying for their medications. This often results in poor control of their health conditions which becomes costlier in the long run.

If finances are a problem, it’s vital to talk with the physician or pharmacist. There may be more cost-effective medications available. Furthermore, a variety of resources are available to help low-income seniors pay for their medications.

Another common issue involves not taking medications according to the instructions. For example, some medications need to be taken either with or without food.

If someone doesn’t follow these directions, either the medication will prove to be less effective or it could cause uncomfortable side effects. As a result, the person might choose to quit taking the medications.

Forgetting to take medications is another common problem. Today, there are many tools available to remind people of their medication schedule. Examples include weekly pill dispensers, alarms, and phone apps.

What to Do Next

After sitting down and reviewing all of the medications with your family member, it often takes only a bit of reorganization to make their med system safe. However, if you have questions, please don’t hesitate to contact their pharmacist for advice.

Better yet, gather up all of their meds, then make an appointment to go to the pharmacy for a complete medication review. This service is free, and it will leave you with peace of mind that your family member is getting the best possible benefit from their medications.

How have you approached your elderly family members in connection with their medications? Are you able to review those medications once every quarter? Have you found any troubling evidence of taking medication incorrectly? Please share your stories in the comments below.

Let's Have a Conversation!