Aging Parents And The Dangers Of Overmedication

Most of us trust the doctors and hospitals to figure out what medications our aging parents need to treat their various, sometimes complex medical conditions.

But there is a problem with all that trust. It is not uncommon for medication intended for a temporary problem to continue to be prescribed endlessly. Your loved one can end up taking medication he or she does not need, but no one notices. In addition to that issue, multiple specialists may see an aging parent, not communicate with each other, and prescribe different medications that do the same thing.

This results in overmedication, unnecessary side effects and sometimes complications created by how these drugs interact with one another.

Every medication your loved one takes has risks. The benefits are presumed to outweigh the risks. Sometimes there is little scrutiny of those risks until something bad happens.

Here's an example from real life, which we encountered at Barbara, like many Boomers had high cholesterol. Her doctor prescribed a statin (cholesterol-lowering) drug, which millions like her are taking.

But no one noticed that in her family, everyone is hyper-sensitive to statins and a small dose, rather than an average one, is all that she needed. Barbara is a widow, has no children, and no one was paying attention to the potential risks of too much statin for Barbara.

She was also taking a medication for high blood pressure. The doctor who prescribed that never talked to the one who prescribed the statin.

That situation, combined perhaps with the fact that she also took other medications, finally led to a crisis. It was unusual, but Barbara began to experience pervasive muscle weakness. It kept getting worse. She had chronic back pain and Barbara thought it was just another pain-related problem with her body. It wasn't.

One day, she collapsed next to her bed and she could not get up. She went to the hospital where a somewhat rare condition of muscle damage was diagnosed, caused by the interaction of her high blood pressure medicine and her statin.

They changed these medications in the hospital.

She recovered her muscle function over several months, with physical therapy and occupational therapy.

We helped Barbara navigate the changes and communicate with her healthcare providers effectively. Ongoing scrutiny of anything prescribed is necessary going forward.

What can you, the adult child, do about the risks of overmedication? Here are some practical steps to take.

  1. Get a list from your loved one of every medication he or she is taking on a regular basis. Ask the prescribing doctor or a nurse what each is for. If that is not an option, it is simple enough to look any medication up on the internet. You will get the necessary information about it, such as when it is indicated and what it is supposed to do. Pay attention to listed potential side effects.
  2. If your loved one has been hospitalized recently, there may be medications on the list for conditions that occurred in the hospital but are no longer present. The orders for drugs given in the hospital tend to carry over after discharge and it is not usually the case that anyone asks if these are still needed. You should ask. There is a strong tendency to continue anything prescribed at any time regardless of necessity going forward.
  3. Bear in mind that many medications taken by our elders can negatively affect balance and strength. This can lead to falls, which are, unfortunately, a common cause of serious injury and death in our aging loved ones. Stopping medications our aging parents don't need can improve their safety and overall better function.
  4. When no one is watching over the medications, as in the example of Barbara, above, drug interactions can lead to an emergency situation and a trip to the hospital. It could have been prevented.  She was fortunate to recover. Not everyone does when damage from drugs occurs. Think of your own vigilance as a preventive tactic to ensure the greater safety of your aging parent. It may be entirely up to you to be the watchdog.


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