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Elderly lady holding her pharmacy pack of medications.

Elderly lady holding her pharmacy pack of medications.
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Medication safety for older people

4-minute read

Older people are at increased risk of medicine-related problems. Learn how to take your medications safely and how to quiz your doctor.

Why your risk increases as you age

Your risk of problems with medicines increases as you age for 2 main reasons.

Changes in your body

Your body changes in many ways as you age. For example, how much water, fat and muscle you have changes. Some health conditions also create further changes in your body. Because of such changes, you might:

  • become more sensitive to the effects of medicines
  • not be able to process medicines properly
  • have difficulty removing medicines from your body
  • become more prone to side effects and medicine interactions

Your brain and nerves also change with age, so problems like memory loss or poor eyesight might start to affect the practical aspects of taking medicines. For example, it is easier to accidentally take your medicine twice, or forget to take it at all.

Multiple medicines

You might have been prescribed many different medicines. If you take 5 or more medicines daily, you are twice as likely to have side effects than other people. You are also far more likely to be taking medicines that could interact with each other.

Taking multiple medicines can also mean a greater chance of making mistakes, because you have more medicines to manage that often need to be taken at different times of the day or even week.

How to improve your medicine safety

Ask questions

Your doctor might have already considered your age and increased risk of side effects or mistakes. But it’s worth asking some important questions, such as:

  • Why do I need to take this medicine?
  • Are there side effects and what should I do if I notice any side effects or symptoms?
  • What should I do if I notice any side effects or symptoms?
  • What should I do if I don’t feel like my medication is working?
  • Are there any precautions I need to take, such as not driving?
  • Does this medication interact with my other medicines, both prescription and non-prescription?
  • Do I need to have regular tests (e.g. blood, kidney and liver) to check how the medicine is affecting me?
  • Is there a way to reduce the number of medicines I’m taking?

You can also use the Question Builder tool to create your question list for the appointment. Prepare your list, then print or email it so you remember what you want to ask.

Keep a medicines list

You can use a medicines list to keep track of:

  • what each medicine (prescription and non-prescription) is for
  • what the dose of each medicine is
  • when and how to use each medicine

To learn how to create your medicines list, go to NPS MedicineWise.

You can also put an app on your phone to remind you when to take your medicines and help everyone involved in your healthcare know what you are taking. You can download the free MedicineWise smartphone app from Google Play or the App Store.

Having an up-to-date medicines list also helps to make sure all of your medicines get reviewed.

Ask for a medicines review

If you take several medicines, ask your doctor or pharmacist for a regular medicines review.

Medicines are ideally reviewed every 6 to 12 months. But you can ask for a medication review at any time, especially when changes are made, including starting new or stopping medicines.

You may be able to have a Home Medicines Review (HMR), where a pharmacist visits you in your home. The review gives you the opportunity to ask the pharmacist about your medicines and how to manage them well. Your doctor will use the results of your review to develop a medication management plan with you. You will need a referral from a GP to have the review.

Talk to your pharmacist or doctor

If you’re taking a lot of medicines, talk to your pharmacist. They might be able to make you a pharmacy pack (also called a blister pack or a Webster pack) that will help you take the right medicines at the right time.

If you have any concerns, talk to your doctor or pharmacist. After discussions, you might have the dose changed or even the medicine changed. But don’t suddenly stop taking your medicines.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2020

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