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Drug Abuse in Seniors: Tips For Managing Prescription Medications

Drug abuse in the elderly is a significant issue.  As people age, they may have more illnesses, and the number of drugs prescribed to manage those illnesses rises as well.  It can be difficult to balance the potential side effects and drug interactions with the benefits of the various medications.  This phenomenon is called polypharmacy—meaning many drugs.



Dangers of Drug Abuse—The Facts

One fifth of people over the age of 65 take at least 10 medications a week.  The way the body absorbs, metabolizes and gets rid of drugs also changes as we age in that it becomes a slower process.  A dose that might be appropriate for a 40 year old may be toxic to an 80 year old.

So why is this happening?  One of the largest contributing factors is that 81% of older adults with serious chronic conditions  see two or more doctors, more than half see three or more.  These doctors do not always have a clear picture about what medications and over the counter preparations their patients are taking.  Even having the family physician as the coordinator may not be enough, as the thought is that if the specialist recommends certain drugs, the FP may be reluctant to step in.

Too Many Medications For Elderly Patients to Control

The problem also falls on the patients themselves.  There can be an expectation that a drug will fix illness, so it is expected to walk out of the doctor’s office with a prescription.

Also, studies show that half of older people sometimes fail to follow the directions for taking the medications.  It is not hard to image that keeping track of ten medications can be daunting.  Remembering if this pill is taken with food or without, in the morning or in the evening, or twice a day or three times.  Often, patients are too embarrassed to ask either their doctors or pharmacists for clear instructions.

Here are some suggested tips to help make sure prescription medications are being used safely:

  1. Periodically, take all of your drugs to a pharmacist and have them do an assessment.  This is covered by OHIP for older adults.

  2. Keep accurate records of all the prescription medications, over the counter products, and herbal supplements you use, and bring that list to each doctor.  Have the doctor update the list if necessary

  3. Get clear instructions on how to use the drugs and possible side effects to watch for.  Tell your doctor or pharmacist if you notice symptoms such as tiredness, dizziness, rashes, depression that weren’t there before taking a new drug.

  4. Ask for any lifestyle changes that might help and may allow you to take fewer drugs, or to take them less frequently.

  5. Ask if you will be needing the drug on an ongoing basis, or when you will be able to stop taking it.

  6. Use one pharmacy if possible, so that they have an accurate record of medications


By Janice Nisker, MS Gerontology, President of Seniors Moving Forward.


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Do you worry about the overuse of prescription medications in seniors or are you concerned that you may be taking too many medications? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.




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