In the United States, more than 125,000 people die annually from a failure to take medications properly. At least 10 percent of all hospital admissions are a result of this problem. For seniors, the statistics are particularly alarming:
• Up to 23 percent of nursing home admissions may be due to an elderly person’s inability to self-manage his or her prescription medications at home.
• Over 21 percent of all drug-related health complications are caused by patients failing to adhere to their medication regimens, whether by accident, negligence, or intent.
• 58 percent of all seniors make some kind of error when taking their medications, with 26 percent making mistakes with potentially serious consequences.
There are lots of reasons why people neglect to take their drugs properly. The most common reason is that they just forget. The average senior takes about seven different medications (both prescribed and over-the-counter) every day, so it’s little wonder that it can be difficult to remember and keep track of them. However, the consequences can be deadly if forgetting leads to taking the same medication twice and overdosing. And skipping a dose by accident might not seem to be such a big deal, but in many cases it is absolutely crucial that doses be kept on as regular a schedule as possible.
Numerous devices and strategies have been developed to help seniors keep track of their medications. These range from charts and labeled pill-boxes to sophisticated dispensing systems that use lights, audible reminders, or even a telephone call.
A common problem is for patients to neglect to take medications intentionally. They may feel better and discontinue treatment prematurely. Or perhaps the medicine doesn’t seem to have an immediate effect so they decide it’s not working and stop. Or they may stop because of side effects, or because they don’t believe they actually need the medications, or because the cost has become burdensome.
The reasons for “noncompliance” (as it’s known in the medical world) can be as varied and individual as each patient, but when people willfully change their dosages or discontinue their medications, it’s usually not because they’re uncooperative or “just stubborn.” Instead, it’s usually because they don’t understand how the medications work and the health consequences of not following the regimen correctly or discontinuing it altogether.
It is important to have proper communication of all your questions and concerns when a doctor prescribes something for you. Don’t just wait for the doctor to tell you how and when to take it, because they won’t always tell you everything you need to know. Here’s a short list of basic questions to always ask:
• What is the medication called? Does it have more than one name?
• How does it work?
• What are the possible side effects?
• Exactly how many times do I take this every day and at what intervals?
• Are there any dangerous interactions with other drugs or with certain foods?
• How long do I have to take this?
• How do I store it?
• How much does it cost? Is there a less expensive alternative?
People are often reluctant to demand a detailed explanation of their medication regimen. They may be afraid of appearing pushy, or of questioning the doctor’s authority. Or they may be afraid of appearing uneducated or unsophisticated. Or they may still be mentally processing the diagnosis (which they may have just received a few minutes before) and are filled with anxiety. All of these are understandable and reasonable fears, but it may help to either call the doctor (or the nurse who works with the doctor) afterward so that your questions can be answered.
The importance of taking medications properly cannot be overemphasized, because the consequences of not following a prescribed medication regimen are especially serious for seniors, but it’s not just about possibly losing one’s life because of drug complications or mistakes. With each hospitalization and emergency room visit that may happen as a result of the resulting declining health, the risk of being prematurely forced into a nursing home increases. And that can cause the loss of something every senior would like to keep for as long as possible — independence.