Be your own advocate for medication safety.
Take, store and dispose of medications safely.
Know when medications can cause harm.
Learn about common and alternative ways to treat pain.
One in three Americans who use prescription medications is an older adult. Older adults also account for three out of 10 adults who use non-prescription (or over-the-counter) medications. Older adults are also more likely to take multiple medications prescribed by several health care providers. This puts older adults at increased risk for reactions, such as falls, depression, confusion and malnutrition. Further, research has shown that three out of five older adults take their prescriptions improperly, including skipping doses, not filling prescriptions and not following the prescriber's directions.
For these reasons, and more, medication safety becomes increasingly important as we age. Older Ohioans should be active participants in their health care, along with their health care providers, pharmacists and family members or other caregivers. Doing so can help you or your loved ones be healthier and more active.
Keep a list of your medications
Maintain an updated, complete list of medications you take, including prescription and non-prescription (over-the-counter) medicines, natural and herbal remedies, as well as any vitamins or supplements. Include:
Medication List Template
Carry a list of the medications you take with you in your purse or wallet, or store it on your mobile phone. Bring it with you to every doctor appointment, as well as to the pharmacy when you pick up your prescriptions. Share your list with a trusted loved one or friend, in case of emergency.
Tip sheet: Keep a list of your medications
Be your own advocate
You are the most important part of your healthcare team. Take the time to become familiar with the medications you take. Ask questions and be sure you understand what each medication does and how it can affect you.
Tip sheet: Be your own advocate
Questions to ask your doctor or pharmacist
When your health care professional is prescribing a new medication or changing your dosage, silence is not golden. Make sure you fully understand why the doctor is prescribing it, how to take it properly and how it might affect you.
Questions to ask include:
Tip sheet: Questions to ask your doctor or pharmacist
Owning and taking medications comes with the responsibility to use the medicine as intended and prevent others from intentionally or unintentionally being exposed to it. This includes all types of medications, such as pills, capsules, gels, chewables, liquids, creams, eye or ear drops, nasal sprays, inhalers, vitamins and dietary supplements.
Take your medications safely
According to researchers, about three out of every five older adults take their prescriptions improperly. Approximately 140,000 older Americans die each year as a result of taking medications improperly. Listen closely when your health care professional prescribes a medication for you, and always follow your doctor's directions when taking your medicine.
Tip sheet: Take your medications safely
Store your medications safely
Fact: Most people who misuse prescription drugs get them from family or friends. It is your responsibility to protect your medications from theft and misuse by others. In addition, some medicines can become less effective or take on unwanted effects if not stored correctly.
Tip sheet: Store your medications safely
Dispose of your medications safely
Keeping medications past their usefulness can be dangerous for a number of reasons. Some medications can become more or less potent over time, and can also develop undesired side effects. Also, keeping medications in your home that you do not need increases the risk for accidental (or intentional) misuse. Medications that you will no longer take or that have passed the expiration date on their label should be disposed of properly and promptly.
The State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy lists various drug disposal resources, including tools to find a drug disposal site near you.
Tip sheet: Dispose of your medications safely
While medications are generally intended to make us feel better by treating disease or managing symptoms, they can be harmful in some situations. As we age, our bodies change and can respond to medications differently than when we were younger, making older adults more vulnerable to overdose and side effects. Many older Ohioans take three or more medications, which increases the potential for errors, misuse, interactions and side effects. Further, age-related conditions and situations can make it harder for older adult to take their medicines exactly as prescribed. Examples include memory loss, issues with attention, poor eyesight, problems swallowing and more.
Side effects and interactions
While medications are typically designed to provide the same benefit for all users, physical changes as we age can cause a drug to work differently or cause unintended side effects. Some medicines that work well for most adults may not be recommended for older adults. The American Geriatrics Society's Health in Aging Foundation advises older adults to be careful with certain types of medications, including:
These potentially harmful medications are included in a widely used tool for health care professionals called the "Beers List," named for the physician who created it. Ask your health care provider about the Beers List and whether any of the medications you take are on it.
Some medications can cause side effects similar to health problems that occur in older adults (such as memory difficulties), so ask your healthcare provider if any new health problems you are experiencing could be due to medications.
Drug interactions happen when two or more medications react with each other to cause unwanted effects or make either medicine’s effects more or less potent. Interactions can occur when:
Tip sheet: Side effects and interactions
Non-prescription does not equal safe
Prescription medications are not the only drugs that can harm you. Many older adults are hospitalized because of problems related to non-prescription (or over-the-counter) pills, liquids, medicated creams, lotions and other formulations. Non-prescription medications often contain the same or similar ingredients as many prescription drugs. In fact, most non-prescription medicines required a prescription to purchase at one time in the past. Non-prescription medicines should be treated with the same care and respect as prescription medications.
What are non-prescription medications?
Non-prescription, or over-the-counter (OTC), medications are medicines that are sold directly to the consumer and do not require a prescription from a health care provider. Some can be purchased from the retail floor, while others may require the buyer to ask for assistance at the pharmacy counter. The Federal Trade Commission requires all non-prescription medications to be labeled with an approved Drug Facts label to educate consumers.
Tip sheet: Non-prescription does not equal safe
Misuse, abuse and addiction
For a variety of reasons, older adults may be more likely to misuse some medications. Body changes as we age can change how we process medications and put us at higher risk for addiction. Further, issues with vision, hearing and brain function can affect our ability to hear and understand directions from our health care providers. Misuse sometimes can lead to drug abuse or addiction.
Medication misuse includes:
Signs of abuse or addiction include:
If you feel that you or a loved one is at risk of medication misuse, may already be misusing medications or exhibits signs of addiction, talk to your health care provider immediately.
Fact sheet: Misuse, abuse and addiction
Protecting our children and grandchildren
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (National Institutes of Health), young adults and teens are the biggest abusers of prescription pain relievers, ADHD medications and anti-anxiety drugs. One in four teens will misuse or abuse a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime. Most people who misuse prescription drugs, including teens and young adults, get them from family or friends, sometimes with their knowledge, but often without it. More than 40 percent of teens who misuse prescription drugs get them from their parents’ medicine cabinets. Keeping your prescription medications out of site and out of reach will help prevent the children in your life from having access to medications that could harm them if not used properly.
In addition to preventing access to medications, it’s important to talk to the young people in your life about the dangers of prescription drug misuse, abuse and addiction. Studies have shown that children whose families talk to them about drug abuse are 50 percent less likely to misuse them. Learn how to have this crucial conversation with the young people in your life with resources from Start Talking! Ohio and Don’t Live in Denial, OH.
Tip sheet: Protecting our children and grandchildren
Medications and falls
Certain medications can have side effects that include dizziness, drowsiness, numbness, dehydration, lack of balance, vision impairment and more. These symptoms and others can increase your risk of falling.
Learn more about medications and falls from STEADY U Ohio.
Tip sheet: Medications and falls
According to the 2018 Ohio Health Issues Poll, about 3 out of 10 Ohioans have been prescribed a pain reliever in the past five years. People who rate their health as fair or poor are 18% more likely to be prescribed pain releivers than those who rate their health as good or excellent. One in 10 Ohioans who have been prescribed pain relievers say their prescriber gave them more medicine than they needed.
Treating pain in older adults can present significant challenges. When an older adult has a number of chronic conditions, some may affect which drugs they can use, while others may require medications that may put these people at a higher risk for drug interactions.
What are opioids?
Opioids are a group of drugs generally used to relieve severe, acute, temporary pain. They are powerful drugs and are commonly prescribed following surgeries and to treat conditions with high levels of pain. They can have mild side effects, such as sleepiness, or more serious side effects, such as slowed breathing and heartrate. They also can be highly addictive because of the relaxed feeling, or "high" they produce. Overdose, brain damage and death are serious concerns with this class of drugs, as are serious withdrawal symptoms after stopping the medication.
Are you at risk?
Certain people have personal factors that place them at higher risk of addiction to opioid medications. Find our your risk level with the Opioid Risk Quiz from Take Charge Ohio.
Common names of opioid medications include Vicodin, Percocet and oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and codeine.
Although opioids are not appropriate to treat long-term, chronic pain, your health care professional may prescribe them when non-prescription remedies (e.g., aspirin, Tylenol, Advil) aren't effective or no longer relieve your pain. These medicines come with serious risks for you to consider, including:
To reduce these risks, follow your doctor's instructions carefully and take the medication exactly as prescribed. Make sure your health care provider knows about other medications and supplements you are taking when he or she prescribes an opiate for you.
Tip sheet: What are opioids?
Alternatives to medications for chronic pain
Pain is complex, which is a good thing because this means there are a variety of ways to treat it, with and without medication, depending on the cause and type of the pain. No single technique can be guaranteed to relieve pain, so a combination of approaches is generally recommended. Talk to your health care provider about your pain management options and which ones might be right for you.
Alternatives to medications for treating chronic pain include:
Tip sheet: Alternatives to medications for chronic pain
Chronic pain self-management workshops
The Ohio Department of Aging, through Ohio's area agencies on aging, offers Chronic Pain Self-Management workshops around the state. These free or low-cost programs are six week, community-based workshops that can help you learn proven strategies to manage chronic pain and health conditions and to feel healthier. It is an evidence-based program designed to teach you to set your own goals and make step-by-step plans to improve your health.
Chronic Pain Self-Management workshops use trained leaders to teach you how to manage your pain. Topics include:
Chronic Pain Self-Management workshops are for you if you have long-term pain or care for someone living with chronic pain, are looking for better ways to manage pain symptoms, feel limited in your daily activities or feel tired, alone, or fearful because of your health or the health of your loved one.
Workshops can help you:
Find a workshop starting soon near you with our Health & Wellness Calendar.
Medication Safety for Older Adults Toolkit
Download all the topics on this webpage as printable tip sheets.
Safe medication practices for life.
Take Charge Ohio
Talk to your doctor about pain management.
Don't Live in Denial, OH
Protect the next generation from opioid abuse.
Talk to your children and grandchildren about drug abuse.
Safe Use of Medicines for Older Adults (National Institute on Aging)
Managing Medicines for a Person with Alzheimer’s (National Institute on Aging)
MedlinePlus: Drug Information (U.S. National Library of Medicine)
If Opioids Have Not Relieved Your Chronic Pain (Ohio BWC)
Is My Pain Medication Making Me Worse? (Ohio BWC)
Take Charge of Pain Medication Safety (Take Charge Ohio)
Older adults are at increased risk for complications from the flu. Flu is highly contagious and is spread by coughing and contact. Symptoms include fever, cough, aches and tiredness. The best way to avoid getting the flu is by getting a flu shot. Ask about special high-dose vaccines specifically for older adults.
For more information, visit:
If you cannot afford your prescription medications, the Ohio's Best Rx prescription drug discount program may be able to help. Ohio's Best Rx offers deep discounts on most name-brand and generic medications at nearly every Ohio pharmacy for Ohioans who lack prescription drug insurance, have coverage limits or have a prescription that isn't covered by your insurance. The Ohio's Best Rx program is included on the Golden Buckeye Card, but is available to all Ohioans regardless of age. Call toll-free 1-866-923-7879 or visit www.ohiobestrx.org for more information.
Disclaimer: The information on this page is not intended as a substitute for medical advice or instruction from a health care professional. Always take medication as prescribed or according to manufacturer's instructions. Consult with your doctor, pharmacist or other health care provider before changing your medication habits.