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Posted: June 30, 2008

Did Pop Take His Pills?...

Helping Loved Ones Manage Their Many Meds

… And if he did, did he take them on time?  Did he take the right ones?  How do you help him keep track of all of them?

Ten percent of people over age 65 take five or more prescription medications, and keeping track of them all can be difficult for a number of reasons.  And I don’t just mean that it can be difficult for the seniors taking the pills; it also can be difficult for those of us helping them.

For seniors, it may be hard to read the labels on prescription pill bottles.  That print can be awfully small.  They may not read the dosing instructions carefully before taking their pills, so they may take them at the wrong time or in the wrong amount.

Seniors also can be forgetful, so they might forget whether they’ve taken their pills.  OK, I admit it; I’ve been guilty of this myself, as most of us have.  But the problem of forgetting – at any age – is that this can lead to missed doses or to “double-dosing” – with sometimes dangerous results.

And what about you?  Do you have to fish through a shoebox full of orangish pill bottles that all look alike whenever it’s time to give Dad his medicine?  Do you get confused about what to give him and when?  Well, if you do, believe me -- you’re not alone.

Take Andrew Stanley, for example. At age 76, Andrew takes 12 pills a day to control his blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and depression.  At least, he’s supposed to take 12 pills a day.  Some days he might take a few more, some days a few less.  He admits he has trouble keeping track of them all.

Andrew keeps the pill bottles lined up on the bathroom counter (you shouldn’t keep your pills in the bathroom, by the way, because the moisture isn’t good for them).  He usually takes them each morning after he shaves, but sometimes when his arthritis acts up, he has trouble opening the bottles.  Then he might wait to take them later.  The problem is he might not take them at all because he becomes confused on whether he actually took them.  

Also, Andrew’s aging eyesight isn’t what it used to be.  He has trouble making out the small type on the pill bottles.  He tries to keep track of how many pills he is supposed to take.  “Two green and white ones, one yellow one…” he recites.  But sometimes he gets mixed up.

His daughter Michelle worries about him.  “I can’t be there all the time to give him the pills,” she says.  “I don’t know how to help him keep them all straight.”

Even if you are there, it can be hard to keep track of them all.  Michael James (not his real name) of Delhi, Ohio, takes 27 pills a day for his HIV.  His sister Nicole keeps his pill bottles in a large shoebox.  Four times a day, she digs through the box, looking for the right pills.  She knows it’s important that he gets the right medicine on time.  Michael’s doctor has told her that if he misses doses, he can build up a resistance to the medication -- yet it’s so hard to keep track of it all.

So how do you keep them all straight?

The first thing you need to do is go to your local pharmacy and buy a medi-set.  These are pill boxes that have little bins for each day of the week.  Some of them have a box for morning and evening, while some even have bins for morning, noon, evening, and night.  Choose the one that fits your loved one’s needs.  They come if different sizes, too.  If your loved one takes a lot of pills, you’ll need a large one.

Medi-sets are wonderful things, for caregivers and elderly alike.  I use one, myself, and I’m only on a couple of medications.  Once a week, I set it up, and then I put away all the bottles of pills.  Every morning and evening, my pills are all ready for me.  No need to mess with opening multiple bottles, reading labels, and counting out pills.  And if I’m not sure whether I’ve taken my pills that morning, I can just check my medi-set.

You can help your loved one by setting up their medi-set once a week.  Include vitamin supplements and any over-the-counter medications they take regularly (such as baby, or low-dosage, aspirin) in the medi-set.  Keep it in an easy-to-see spot, like on the kitchen table.  

You can’t put liquid medicine in the medi-set, obviously, so keep any liquid medications right beside the medi-set.  Make sure the label on the liquid medication is large enough for your loved one (and you) to easily read.  If the label is hard to read, write the time and amount of the dose on an index card and put it beside the bottle.

If your loved one takes prescription or over-the-counter medications on an “as needed” basis, you can keep these bottles with instructions beside the medi-set, as well.  If he or she has trouble remembering how many they’ve taken, or is likely to take too many, there are ways you can deal with this too: buy another medi-set, one that has just one box for each day of the week.  Put the maximum number of “as needed” pills in each box.  And when they’re gone, that’s all for that day.

But what if Dad forgets to take his pills?

There’s a solution for this too. In fact, there are several ways to help Dad remember to take his pills, if keeping his medi-set in plain view doesn’t do the trick.

You can always call to remind him.  If that’s not possible, you might be able to have someone else call him.  When I worked for a home health care and hospice agency, someone from our agency would call patients to remind them to take their pills, if needed.  If your loved one is getting home health services, find out if the agency can provide that service.

You can also set a timer.  There are even medi-sets that have alarms on them, although some can be pricey.  You may not be able to find these at your local pharmacy, though; try medical supply stores, or look online.

With a little up-front effort on your part, you can make it easier for you and Dad to manage his meds.  Not only will it be easier, it will be safer, preventing potentially dangerous medication errors.


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

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