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Posted: March 21, 2008

Where’s Mom’s Medical Degree?

Self-Medicating by Seniors too Common, Always Dangerous

“Alka-Seltzer!” my grandma used to say. “Good for whatever ails ye!”

Well, maybe. But maybe not, if you’re taking it along with some cold pills, some over-the-counter cough syrup, and a handful of prescription drugs. It says right on the box that you shouldn’t take it without talking to your doctor if you are on blood-thinning drugs or on medication for diabetes, gout, or arthritis. My grandma had bad eyes. I don’t think she read the fine print.

And many older people don’t either. They assume that over-the-counter medications are safe because, well, they are available over the counter. So they self-medicate without reading all of the instructions on the package. And sometimes sufficient information isn’t even available on the package. For instance, on my store-brand bottle of cough syrup, it says that it may cause interactions with prescription medications – but it doesn’t say which ones. To be safe, I’ll have to ask the pharmacist. However, many people simply don’t ask.

In fact, a study conducted at the University of Connecticut found that 65% of older adults sampled had taken an over-the-counter medication that could cause an adverse reaction with their prescription medication. And the elderly in the study were not at all aware of the risk they were taking.

And then there are people who decide to double up on their prescription drugs. People like Martin Andrews of Cincinnati, Ohio. He was on medication for depression, and the pill he took every morning seemed to help some, but not enough. So he decided to take two pills instead of one. Two days later he passed out when he got up during the night to go to the bathroom because the medication caused his blood pressure to drop.

“Unfortunately, it’s not that uncommon,” says Linda Heighnes, a home care nurse in Cincinnati. “Patients assume if medication helps them, then they can take more and it will help them even more.”

There is yet another medication problem to watch for. “I have patients who will share medication with other family members,” Linda tells us. “That’s a big no-no. Just because it helps you, doesn’t mean it will help your wife. She might be allergic, it might react with medication she’s already taking – there could be all kinds of problems.”

All kinds of problems is right. Mixing the wrong medications is bad news. Depending on the drugs, you can end up with ulcers, seizures or heart failure. Sometimes it can be deadly.

So how can you keep your loved one safe?

Start by checking out their medicine cabinet. I was shocked to discover that my grandma had a whole kitchen cupboard full of over-the-counter medications. She had plenty of Alka-Seltzer, of course, but she also had Tylenol, Excedrin, aspirin, ibuprofen, three kinds of cold medicine, cough syrup, milk of magnesia, and a bottle of Tums.

She would mix and match this stuff, and take it along with her five prescription medications that she kept on the lazy Susan on the kitchen table. It was time to clean house.

She kept old prescription drugs, too. If she didn’t finish an antibiotic as prescribed, she would save the remainder. The next time she felt sick, instead of going to the doctor, she would take some of the old pills, thinking that she knew best. Some of them were expired (most prescription drugs expire after one year), but I don’t think she realized that. So here was Grandma, sick and helping herself to a partial course of expired antibiotics without even knowing what was really wrong with her.

I should add that my grandma grew up during the Great Depression. I believe she saved things as a result. She stockpiled pills the same way she did food and other household goods. It’s not uncommon among the elderly and something all caregivers should watch for.

The moral of this story? Limit the number of over-the-counter medications you keep on hand. Ask your loved one’s doctor or pharmacist which pain reliever is safe for them to use. If they need an antacid or cold medicine, ask about that too. But don’t stockpile medications.

Always read the fine print on the packaging. Pay attention to any warnings about possible drug interactions. Take them seriously. Ask your loved one’s doctor or pharmacist if you have questions.

Get rid of old, unfinished prescriptions. If your loved one is ill, they should go to the doctor to find out what’s wrong and get the proper medication. And while they’re there, they should ask what over-the-counter medications they can take with the prescribed drug.

Remind them to take their prescription medication as it is prescribed. If they feel they need a higher dose, talk to their doctor. Don’t just increase the dose without a doctor’s approval. (Don’t decrease the dose without a doctor’s approval, either).

Never share medication with a family member. I know, I know, there are those pain pills left from when you had your root canal, and Dad’s back hurts, and surely one or two of those pills won’t hurt him. It’s just not a good idea; you don’t know how it will interact with Dad’s heart medication. Trust me. Dad needs to take his bad back to a doctor because he might have a herniated disk and need something more than a pain pill. To be safe, your loved one should get their own fresh prescription each time they are ill.

Naturally, it’s important for people to take an active role in their own health care, and that includes being involved in making decisions about medication. But in order to make the right decisions, one needs to have all the information. And we, as caregivers, should help make sure our elderly loved ones get the information they need and take simple steps to make sure their medications are safe.

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Kelly Morris is a former social worker and home health and hospice worker whose writing has appeared in a number of health-related journals. She lives in Mansfield, Ohio, and can be reached at multihearts@hotmail.com

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