The elderly population often take many medications (typically prescription drugs, but also over-the-counter medications and supplements) as a part of their overall health care. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who are 65 years or older are twice as likely to come to the emergency department because of adverse drug events (when people are harmed by medications).

Medication safety for the elderly is a particular concern, whether you’re a caregiver or you’re responsible for your own care. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as a person becomes older, changes in his or her body can affect the way medicines are absorbed; for example:

  • Changes in the digestive system can affect how quickly a medication enters the bloodstream.
  • Changes in body weight can determine how much medicine a person needs and how long it remains in the body.
  • Changes in how fast the circulatory system works can influence how quickly medicine gets to the liver and kidneys.
  • Changes in the liver and kidneys may cause them to work slower, affecting how the medication is broken down and removed from the body.

If you’re a caregiver for someone at risk for elderly medication complications, or are managing your own care, here are some steps you can take to minimize potential problems.

What are possible medication interactions that may occur for the elderly?

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are three broad kinds of drug interactions:

  • Complications that occur when two or more prescription drugs, supplements, or over-the-counter medications interact with each other
  • Reactions that occur when a medication interacts with food or drink
  • Interactions that occur when your medical condition makes certain medications possibly harmful

Be sure you read all warning labels and ask your pharmacist if you are unsure about anything you read. If you’re a caregiver, you may want to help your loved one keep track of this information.

What should I ask the doctor about medications for the elderly?

As a caregiver, you might accompany your loved one to his or her doctor visits. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends taking a proactive role in medication management when you visit the doctor or health-care professional:

  • Tell your doctor about all of the prescription drugs and medications you take (or your loved one takes). This includes over-the-counter medicines (like pain relievers, antacids, or cold medicines), herbal supplements, and topical preparations (like creams and ointments).
  • Let your doctor know about your medical history, any allergies to food or medicine, and eating habits. You can also let her or him know about any difficulties you have, whether it’s forgetting to take a dose occasionally, experiencing any side effects, or having trouble paying for your medications. Your doctor may have some ideas to help.
  • Ask your doctor how well a prescription drug that you’re taking is working, and whether there are any lifestyle changes you can make (like exercise or diet) that can help you cut back the medicine, if applicable (don’t stop taking the medication on your own without first consulting your physician).
  • Find out if your doctor can write down for you a list of your complete medication schedule, with directions on how and when to take the prescription drugs/medications.
  • Before leaving the office with a new prescription, ask your doctor questions, such as:
  • What’s the medication supposed to do?
  • How and when do I take the medicine?
  • What do I do if I miss a dose?
  • What foods or drinks should I avoid with this medication?
  • What are the possible side effects?
  • Will it be safe to take with other prescription drugs or over-the-counter medicines/supplements?

How can the pharmacist help with medication safety for the elderly?

Caregivers might also accompany their loved ones to the pharmacy. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), your pharmacist can help you understand how and when to take medications, the side effects, and any interactions that may happen. Many pharmacists or pharmacy networks keep track of medications on their computers. If you purchase your prescription drugs at one pharmacy or within the same pharmacy network, tell your pharmacist about all over-the-counter medications and supplements you take, and he or she can help you make sure there are no harmful interactions with your prescription drugs.

Here are some questions that the FDA recommends you ask at the pharmacy or wherever you get your medications:

  • Is there written information (perhaps available in large print) about the medication?
  • What’s the most important thing I should know about this medication? You can ask the pharmacist any questions your doctor hasn’t answered yet.
  • How do I get a refill, if needed?
  • How (and where) should I store the medication?

What are some tips to ensure medication safety for the elderly?

There are some ways to better manage medications, whether you’re a caregiver or in charge of your own care. According to the FDA, here are some tips for safe medication use, especially for those who are elderly:

  • Learn about the medications you take (or a loved one takes), and talk to your doctor or pharmacist about them — including prescription drugs, herbal/dietary supplements, and over-the-counter medicines.
  • Use a pill organizer/box, calendar, or other ways to help you remember what medications to take and when to take them—refer to the information the doctors has given.
  • Keep track of side effects or possible drug interactions from the medications you take and call your doctor right away if you notice any changes.
  • Safely dispose of any expired medications; ask the pharmacist how to do so.
  • Ask your pharmacist for a refill if your medications are expired. If no refills are left, call your prescribing doctor.

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For more information about medication management for the elderly, please see:

“Medicines and You: A Guide for Older Adults,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), last modified October 7, 2015,