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Older Americans Month: Medication Safety Often Overlooked

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

Have you looked in your older family member’s medicine cabinet lately? Chances are he or she is taking multiple prescription medications. While the average number is four (not including over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements), I’ve known older people who are taking anywhere from 8 to 15 medications at once. As you can imagine, this can get a little confusing!

And dangerous. According to the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, there was a 121 percent increase in emergency room visits involving the misuse of prescription medications among older Americans from 2004 to 2008. Misuse might involve taking drugs that negatively interact with each other, taking pills at the wrong times, taking a drug inappropriate for the person’s health conditions, or taking too much medication due to dependency, confusion, or the body’s inability to process the current dosage.

How do older people accumulate so many medications? It’s not only because older people are more likely to have chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. It’s also because our health care system is fragmented. Most older people have been shuttled around from specialist to specialist until they have ten different prescriptions from ten different doctors! Unfortunately, doctors rarely talk to each other, so unless the older person correctly lists all current medications he or she is taking, there’s a good chance the latest doctor is writing prescriptions without all of the necessary information. Double prescriptions are common; prescriptions that unknowingly interact with, or decrease the effectiveness of, other prescriptions happens too.

Prescription drug misuse is serious and can have dangerous consequences such as falls or other accidents, organ damage, or even death. It can also result in a condition called delirium characterized by extreme confusion and agitation. This is often mistaken for Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia, with tragic consequences.

Fortunately, prescription drug abuse doesn’t have to happen. If you are worried about an older family member’s safety due to multiple prescriptions and/or changes in the person’s ability to manage one’s medications, here are some resources:


Administration for Community Living. (2014). Activity Guide for Older Americans Month 2014.

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