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Medicines safety for older people

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Older people have more chance of having medicine-related problems.
  • Polypharmacy is when you take 5 or more medicines.
  • It is helpful to keep a current list of your medicines to share with your healthcare provider.
  • Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions about your medicines.

Why am I more likely to have problems with my medicines as I get older?

Your chance of problems with medicines increases as you age for 2 main reasons:

  1. how your body works changes with age
  2. you are more likely to be taking multiple medicines (polypharmacy) as you get older

Changes in your body

Your body changes in many ways as you age. For example, the amount of water, fat and muscle you have changes.

Because of these changes, your body may:

  • become more sensitive to your medicines
  • not be able to process your medicines properly
  • have difficulty getting rid of medicines from your body

You may also become more likely to get side effects and have interactions between your medicines.

Some health conditions can make it more difficult to take medicines. These can include:

  • poor eyesight, which may make it hard to read the instructions on your medicine
  • arthritis, which may make it hard for you to open your medicine
  • memory loss, which may make it hard for you to remember to take your medicine

Polypharmacy (multiple medicines)

If you have a few chronic (ongoing) conditions you might be prescribed multiple medicines. When you take 5 or more medicines this is called polypharmacy.

If you take 5 or more medicines daily, you are:

  • more likely to be taking medicines that can interact with each other
  • more likely to make a mistake with your medicines

How can I improve my medicine safety?

There are some things you can do to make sure that you use your medicines safely. These are:

  • keep a current medicines list including vitamins and other complementary medicines
  • ask your doctor questions about your medicines
  • ask for a medicine review

Keep a medicines list

You can use a medicines list to keep track of:

  • what each medicine (prescription and non-prescription) is for
  • the dose (how much) of each medicine you take
  • when to take each medicine
  • how to take each medicine, for example some medicines you need to take with food.

You can keep a medicine list by:

  • writing down the names and amounts of each medicine you take on a piece of paper
  • downloading and using a medicines list app on your smart phone
  • asking your doctor or pharmacist for a medicine list at your next visit

Medicine lists help to make sure that everyone involved in your healthcare knows what you are taking.

Ask your doctor questions about your medicines

When getting a new medicine, you should ask your doctor or pharmacist these questions.

  • Why do I need to take this medicine?
  • Are there side effects?
  • What should I do if I notice any side effects?
  • What should I do if I don’t feel like my medicine is working?
  • Are there any things I need to do when taking this medicine, such as not driving?
  • Does this medicine affect my other medicines? This includes both prescription and non-prescription medicines.
  • Do I need to have blood tests to check how the medicine is affecting me?
  • Is there a way to lower the number of medicines I’m taking?

Your doctor will consider your age when deciding if a medicine is right for you.

You can also talk to your doctor about other concerns you may have with your medicines. They may:

  • change your dose
  • change your medicine

NEVER stop taking your medicine without talking to your doctor.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

Ask for a medicine review

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

Ideally, your medicines should be checked every 6 to 12 months. But you can ask for a medicine review at any time. You may want to ask for a review when you:

  • start a new medicine
  • stop a medicine

Having an up-to-date medicine list helps to make sure all your medicines are reviewed.

You may be able to have a Home Medicines Review (HMR). This is 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 create a medication management plan with you. You will need a referral from a doctor to have a Home Medicines Review. This service is free of charge.

How do I organise my medicines?

You can try using a weekly dosing aid. This is a container that you can fill with your tablets each week.

If you’re having trouble remembering which medicines to take when, talk to your pharmacist. They might be able to make you a pharmacy pack (also called a blister pack or a Webster pack). These help you take the right medicines at the right time.

Your pharmacist can also help answer any questions that you may have about your medicines.

For more information, you can call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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

Last reviewed: February 2023

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