Managing Your Medications

Health, Home & Family
on December 30, 2007

Managing the nine medications her husband takes for Parkinson’s disease is an ongoing challenge for Sue Webert, 65, of Surprise, Ariz.

Webert’s husband, Stan, 69, takes more than 80 pills a week. One medication has to be taken on an empty stomach every five hours during the day; other medications must be taken on a full stomach. Two nights a week, he takes an extra half dose of another drug.

How does she keep track of it all? “It’s kind of tricky,” she says. “I fill pill containers for the week and we keep one container on the counter and one in the car.” She also makes notes on a daily calendar and uses her cell phone alarm to remind her when it’s time for Stan’s afternoon pill. “My husband could not manage these medications on his own,” Webert says. “He wouldn’t remember to take them.”

Webert’s husband is among the millions of Americans who take multiple medications. According to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP), at least 51 percent of Americans take more than one medication daily, including prescription and nonprescription drugs, vitamins and herbal supplements. Among those age 65 or older, 79 percent take multiple medications—an average of four each day.

“Medications are an important mainstay of healthcare,” says Kasey Thompson, ASHP’s director of patient safety, “but as you take more medications, the potential for interactions increases.”

The elderly are at even greater risk for dangerous drug interactions and side effects because they take more medicines and may suffer from poor eyesight, dexterity problems and unreliable memories, which can make it difficult to take medicines correctly.

Studies have shown that up to 75 percent of older people do not take their medications at the right time or in the right amount. Skipping doses, taking the wrong dose, or not taking medicines at the right time can have dangerous consequences. Poor medication management is associated with thousands of deaths, hospital admissions and nursing home admissions each year.

Create a system
It’s important to make sure that all drugs—whether prescription or over-the-counter—are taken as prescribed. If you take several medications, create a system that will help you follow your doctor’s orders. Maintaining a written record of your medications and dosing schedule is a good idea.

“One of the most important things a patient can do is keep a current PMR—Personal Medication Record,” says pharmacist Anne Burns, vice president of professional affairs for the American Pharmacists Association. The medication record should include prescription and nonprescription drugs, as well as vitamins, herbs and other supplements you take.

Keep your record handy at all times, and be sure to give a copy to your doctor, pharmacist and any other people involved in your care. “If your physician, pharmacist or nurse doesn’t have the full picture, even life-saving medications can be dangerous,” Burns says. To obtain a PMR form, call (888) 687-2277 and request AARP’s free booklet Medicines Made Easy.

Find ways to remind yourself when and how to take your medicines. Some people line up their pill bottles on the counter in the morning and return them to the cupboard after they take a dose. Others jog their memories by keeping morning pills next to the coffee maker, and bedtime medicines with the night cream or dental floss. Here are some other suggestions for managing numerous medicines:

  • Use a pill box with labeled spaces for each day of the week. This is a handy way to organize pills, and it helps to remind you whether you’ve already taken them.
  • Have all your prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy so that the pharmacist can check your medications for possible interactions.
  • Stay informed. Read prescription inserts and discuss your medications with your doctor and pharmacist. Sometimes even healthy foods can interact with certain medications—drinking grapefruit juice with some cholesterol-lowering drugs can be harmful, for example—so it’s important that you understand your medicines and take them as directed. You can check medications for interactions at

“Develop a relationship with your pharmacist and healthcare professionals. Really understand your medications,” Thompson advises.

Managing multiple medications can be complicated, but by staying informed about your medicines, following doctor’s orders and taking medications correctly, you can enjoy better health.