A recent report from the Canada Safety Council noted that approximately two-thirds of Canadian seniors over the age of 65 have five or more drug prescriptions, while approximately one-quarter have 10 prescriptions or more. BC Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie has some important advice for seniors, and their families and caregivers.
“Know what medications are being taken, and why, and what their side effects are,” she says. “Part of the problem with older people is that when they have symptoms such as confusion, or feeling tired, or an upset stomach, it is written off as just part of getting older. But it could be the side effects of medication.”
She adds that one of the challenges is when decisions about medication are made “in the moment, or in a vacuum, with family far away.”
Polypharmacy—the simultaneous use of multiple drugs by one patient—brings a host of potential drug reactions. Mackenzie says it is important for those taking multiple medications to be aware of the potential side effects of each drug. “You might read the list of side effects and find a list of your own symptoms.”
She says that if a patient is prescribed two contraindicated drugs, an alarm will be sent out by the PharmaNet system, administered by the Ministry of Health and the College of Pharmacists of B.C. Still, she notes that drugs are not usually tested on seniors, so it is not a perfect system.
Those taking several medications—whether seniors or not—should keep a complete and current list of all medications, along with dosages and schedules. Ask why you are taking a particular drug, and make a note of that as well.
Inform your healthcare professional about all the medications you are taking, including over-the-counter medicine, herbal remedies, and vitamins. This will help avoid being prescribed with a medication that could interact with them. Organize your medications by having them prepackaged in daily doses at your pharmacy, or putting them in a weekly pill organizer.
Fill your prescription at the same pharmacy every time; staff will become familiar with what medications you are taking, and will notice if you are prescribed medications that conflict with each other.
“Taking multiple medications can have a cumulative effect,” says Mackenzie. “It might be subtle at first, but adding more drugs can make side effects worse. Be informed.”