Does your aging parent take the rainbow approach to managing medications?
You know — a pink one after breakfast, two yellows and a green at lunch, followed by two blues at bed time? Using color and shape to distinguish one medication from another is a surprisingly common short-hand practiced by many older adults. Heck, it may even work just fine if a person only takes one or two pills each day.
But your mother is probably taking more than two pills per day. In fact, using data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and AARP, there’s a 50/50 chance that your mother or father is taking six prescription medications a day and maybe more. More pills means a greater likelihood of confusion when it comes to when and how to take them. Especially when the pills or the prescriptions change…
Why organizing medications by color and pill shape isn’t a good idea
I can all but promise you that one day soon your mother will twist the white cap on the orange refill vial and discover that her little pink “after breakfast” pill is no longer little…or pink! Why? Because the manufacturer has changed or the medication is dispensed in generic form. Maybe her doctor decided to increase the dose at her last check-up or hospitalization, etc., etc., etc.
So the morning pill is now neon green, but that’s not all! You know those two blue pills your mother takes at bedtime? Yeah, they’re now orange and she is supposed to take them midday instead of at night…along with a brand new purple pill.
Think this is crazy-making? Oh, it is! And without a more dependable system, your sweet little mother is now at risk of taking her medications incorrectly which can cause harm.
So what’s the fix here? Ah, I’m so glad you asked!
Three ways to manage medications
1. Use a handy-dandy paper medication management tool
There are several out there, but the one I like best is: United Hospital Fund’s Next Step in Care Medication Management Form for Family Caregivers - available in English, Spanish, Chinese & Russian. Print a blank version or make changes to the form directly on your computer. BUT, whatever you do, be sure to update the form each time a medication is added, removed or changed.
And, if at all possible, help your aging parent to get into the habit of taking the form with them to doctors’ appointments or to any other setting where care is provided including the emergency room. This will ensure that all health care providers stay on the same page (literally!) when it comes to medications.
2. Talk to the nice pharmacist about getting prescriptions filled in blister packs
Never heard of a blister pack? Oh that’s the name given to those little plastic bubbles that are used mostly to package over-the-counter medications that come in flat boxes. However, if you request it, many pharmacists will group all of your aging parent’s medications by the dose time and then package all the grouped pills in blister packs.
Just imagine that your mother finishes breakfast and is ready to take her morning pills. Instead of reaching for the vials, she just punctures a single blister pack! Same thing when it’s time for the midday medications. This is how nursing homes have been keeping patients’ meds straight for years, so why shouldn’t your mom benefit from the technology at home?
Wondering where to find one of these nice pharmacists?
I was too! So I made a few quick calls. As it turns out all Walmart pharmacies offer blister packs, some CVS and Rite Aid pharmacies do and all Walgreens pharmacies do not. If your aging parent uses a mom and pop pharmacy it’s worth a call to confirm, but my hunch would be that they would not have blister pack capability since the materials and equipment needed can be costly and takes up space.
Speaking of equipment being costly, this third one will have you dipping into your pocket, so be sure it’s worth it…
3. Rent a super duper medication dispenser/reminder system
The only medication dispenser/reminder system that I’m aware of is Philips Medication Dispensing Service. For around $75 a month plus the cost of set up, you can essentially rent an automatic medication dispensing system that sits on your parent’s counter top and drops a cup of pills at a set time several times per day. A flashing light and woman’s voice reminds him or her to dispense and take the medications. If no one retrieves the medications within 90 minutes or so, a family caregiver is notified by phone.
The drawbacks here are that your aging parent may actually be active (God willing!) and so may like to leave the house every now and again! If he or she is typically gone for more than a few hours, the dispensing system may not be a good option. And, the unit has to be pre-filled which means that you or someone else needs to be there to do it, at least every 40 days.
So who is option #3 good for? I’d say aging parents who are home-bound and/or have early Alzheimer’s. In these two instances the product helps to support their independence at home for as long as possible.
So there you have it! Three ways to help mom manage her medications. Did I mention the system that has worked best for you and your aging parent? If so please let me know in the comments section below or by getting in touch!