The majority of adults in America take at least one prescription medication. Some take many. With age, chances are you will take even more.

Medications can be life-changing, and, at best, can be life-saving. Despite side effects, most of the benefits are worth the downside, if there is one. Managing medications can seem like a daunting task, especially as the number of prescriptions you take increases. Taking them at the right time, in the right combinations and the proper dosages is of crucial importance. This, however, is just one of several important considerations.

For many people, paying for their prescription medications is the greatest concern. Becoming aware of the side effects is another. Swallowing them safely and easily—especially the larger and dry ones—can be an issue. Helping an elderly loved one, or someone who is mentally or cognitively challenged to take them properly is a concern for many.

This article will provide basic information regarding these aspects. There are tips and suggestions that can be easily implemented to maximize the safety, minimize the cost, and improve the swallow process.

Becoming educated about the various prescriptions your health care provider has prescribed for you is an important step in maximizing control over your own health. With your provider’s direction, awareness of side effects is crucial for your health and comfort. Sometimes, there are small changes that can be made that make it easier for you to obtain and consume them. Generic drugs, while in most cases are significantly cheaper, are typically a consideration. However, some may not deliver the same effective results as the name-brand drug, and your provider’s decision whether or not to prescribe a generic should be respected. The provider gains no benefit from prescribing a name-brand drug, so your health interests are always foremost when that decision is made. If, however, the generic is the only form that you can afford, you should be sure to express that to your provider.

Medicare D is the plan that covers prescription drugs. If you are eligible for the other forms of Medicare, you are likely to also be eligible for Medicare D. The multitude of private health insurance policies available on the market for those not eligible for Medicare vary widely in their coverage, so you would have to learn about your individual coverage with your insurer.

Pharmacists not only fill and dispense prescriptions, they are often an overlooked wealth of information that you could benefit from, given the opportunity to get that information from them. By scheduling at least an annual review with your pharmacist, you can gather important, and possibly life-saving information, such as:

  • Medicare D/Insurance benefits regarding medications
  •  Considerations to help you fit the cost of drugs into your budget
  • Ensure each prescribed medication is most appropriate for you
  • Review your health during the past year, accounting for any changes that may require medication adjustments.
  • Provide a liason between you and your doctor concerning your medications.
  • Education and awareness regarding side effects and drug interactions.

A relatively new invention on the market to aid in the safe, timely and appropriate medication dosage is the electronic pill dispenser. This is basically an upright canister with compartments inside to hold each of your prescriptions separately. It is programmed to dispense each pill at its appropriate time in the appropriate dosage to ensure safe administration. This electronic system prevents under- or over-dosages when it is programmed correctly. If the person taking the medications is not able to load their prescriptions into the device correctly, a caregiver should complete this task.

This dispenser is especially helpful for anyone who lives alone, depends upon themselves to take their medication correctly, and especially those who may be suffering from memory and/or cognitive deficits. People with early-stage Alzheimer’s Disease who struggle to take their medications correctly are prime users of this device. At the programmed time, the pills are released by the dispenser, and they slide out of a chute on the bottom. Typically, an alarm sounds to alert the person that the pills have been dispensed, and are ready to be taken. One caution to be aware of is this: some of the dispensers have a high-pitched alarm, which can be difficult to hear. Elderly people who suffer from age-induced hearing loss generally do not hear this high-pitched sound, as those high pitched sounds are not heard well, or at all by those with age-induced hearing loss.

Some of the more technologically advanced models allow a caregiver to log on to their computer remotely to gain access to the computer inside the dispenser, and find out if their family member or loved one has taken their medications that were dispensed. There are various other alerting systems available on some models that would then be engaged if necessary. Your pharmacist would be able to discuss this device with you to determine if it is appropriate for you or your family member/loved one. In general, Medicare does not cover the cost of the dispenser, but there may be special situations that some or all coverage is allowed, and your pharmacist would be able to answer any reimbursement questions as well. Individual health insurance policies would be consulted for coverage as well.

This device has made a tremendous difference for many people who, otherwise could not live alone for this reason. It has allowed them to maintain their independence in their own homes, which can account for a significant part of one’s outlook on their life, and their sense of autonomy.

Many people dispense their medications into a box with separated sections for each day, and some for specific times of day. This method is very inexpensive and helpful in keeping medications organized. If you or a loved one needs assistance to make sure you are putting them in the right boxes, asking for help once each week should be considered.

As we age, and/or as our parents and loved ones age, it is likely that the number of prescriptions will increase as the number of diagnoses increase. With these increased diagnoses, there is a greater chance that additional doctors will become a part of the care team. Specialists may be called upon to treat unique conditions, and they will likely prescribe more medications. Being certain that the primary care physician and the specialist are aware of the medications that each is prescribing is of utmost importance. It is a good idea to consistently use one pharmacy so that they can manage your prescriptions, but when additional doctors are added to the team, it becomes of paramount importance that one pharmacy is managing your medications. With a comprehensive list of medications, the pharmacist will be able to monitor the combinations of drugs, and keep you aware of any possible interactions between these drugs that may occur.

Keeping an up-to-date list of medications handy in your home and available for others to review is important in the event that you require urgent care, and cannot communicate to emergency medical personnel what medications you are taking. They can discern if any of your problems may be medication-related, or compounded by your medications. If you require hospitalization, having this list available is helpful to the hospital staff.

Ensuring a seamless transition with your medications from the home to the hospital for an extended stay is something not to be taken for granted. If even one medication is not included on your list as an inpatient, or if the dosages are not accurate, there can be additional health concerns or complications. Don’t assume that your medical records will be transferred with 100% accuracy, it is good to double-check the medication list.

As we age, our bodies metabolize medications differently, so it is important to check with your pharmacist to make sure that if you have been taking a prescription long-term, that the dosage is still appropriate for your age and weight, if it has changed.

Many pharmacies now describe the visual aspects of a pill on the label, such as “small round orange tablet” to make the patient more aware of what each pill should look like. Also, the diagnosis that the pill is prescribed for is often included, such as “treats high blood pressure” or “blood thinner.”

These informational aspects are helpful in keeping the patient aware of more aspects of their medications, in an effort to increase understanding and safety in dispensing.

Age brings an almost-inevitable slow-down in most of our muscular functions, and swallowing is no different. It, too, is a very muscular activity, and the process of swallowing typically slows down. If you were able to swallow a handful of pills when you were younger, or even if you still do it well into middle age, it is wise to reduce the number of pills you take per swallow. Many people consider it a badge of strength and youth to gulp a handful of pills, but it is not a safe practice. Ideally, swallowing one at a time is the best advice, but even if you reduce the number of pills you take per swallow in half, you are likely to swallow more safely.

Many people mistakenly think that tilting the head back to swallow a pill is the best way, assuming incorrectly that this aids gravity in the swallow process. The opposite is actually true. Tilting the chin down slightly as you swallow is the safest way to swallow pills. Tilting the head back to get the pills in the back of the mouth is sometimes necessary, but be sure to tuck your chin down slightly as you swallow. This may sound contrary, but trying it out with just one pill will allow you to see that it is typically easier.

There is understandable anxiety surrounding the process of swallowing a pill for many people who have had great difficulty in the past. The chin-tuck maneuver has proven to be helpful for many people. In extreme cases, grinding the pills and mixing them with a smooth solid such as applesauce or yogurt can be helpful. If, however, a medication is time-released, this is not recommended. Checking with your pharmacist before grinding medications is a wise idea.


Medications are meant to improve our health and quality of life. In some cases, they may even save your life. Taking them correctly and safely is an important of health care and maintenance.