Advancing age and an increasingly complex mix of medical conditions is the reason more than two-thirds of adults aged 65+ take five or more prescription medications, and one-quarter take 10 or more. As a result, many seniors are facing an increased risk of adverse events include side effects and drug interactions. In recognition of Pharmacist Awareness Month in March, we’re shining a spotlight on the important role pharmacists can play in helping older adults safely manage their medications for better health outcomes.
Polypharmacy – the term used to describe the use of multiple medications at once – is a particular concern among older adults who might face barriers including: health literacy (the ability to understand and communicate health information accurately); functional impairments (such as failing vision and manual dexterity); and other medical conditions (e.g. cognitive impairment and depression).
Chris Fan-Lun, a clinical practice leader and board certified geriatric pharmacist at Sinai Health System’s Mount Sinai Hospital, says these barriers can often lead to medication misuse, including taking the wrong dose, taking medication at the wrong time, or missing doses all together. “When an adverse drug event happens, it could lead to a mild stomach ache or something more serious like a fall or hospitalization,” he says. In Canada, seniors account for 60% of all hospitalizations due to adverse drug events.
This is why Fan-Lun says more education about why drugs are prescribed and better monitoring is essential. “We often see issues arise when new medications are added or stopped, when a dose is changed, when medications are taken with alcohol, or when non-prescription products are taken without the doctor or pharmacist knowing about them.”
Because older adults may see a variety of health specialists, the result can sometimes lead to an uncoordinated prescription of pills that may not work well together. However, regular medication reviews with a primary physician or pharmacist can help to weed out unnecessary, ineffective or harmful medications. In fact, with proper oversight from a pharmacist and physician, it is estimated that 40% of harmful drug effects could be prevented.
Canada’s population of older adults is expected to double in the coming decades, and their dependence on prescription medications to manage complex health conditions will continue. But by drawing on the valuable knowledge of pharmacists – the medication experts – older adults and their caregivers can feel more confident about managing their medications and continue to age healthfully and independently.
Managing Your Medications Wisely – Dos and Don’ts
DO ask your pharmacist questions about side effects, missed doses, and interactions with other prescription and non-prescription drugs.
DO keep a list of all medications you are taking, including dosage and purpose. Most pharmacists can prepare this list for you. Or, create your own by downloading this handy template. Bring your list to every medical appointment and pharmacy visit.
DO use a pillbox or dosette to organize your medications. Or, ask your pharmacist to package your prescriptions in a blister pack. This is often done for free or for a minimal fee.
DO read this informative guide from Sinai Health System’s Healthy Ageing and Geriatrics Program for more information and tips.
DON’T take medications that are not prescribed for you.
DON’T stop taking any medications on your own. Always speak with your physician before doing so.
DON’T use medication that has expired. Take it (and any other medications that are no longer used) to your pharmacy for safe disposal.
More Great Resources to Help You Manage Your Meds
CHECKLIST: 5 Questions to Ask About Your Medications (safemedicationuse.ca)
VIDEO: One Simple Solution for Medication Safety (Dr. Mike Evans/Reframe Health Lab).
VIDEO: Pharmacy in Canada (Canadian Pharmacists’ Association)