As people get older many develop a variety of illnesses and diseases that put them at risk for being poisoned.

Any of these conditions can cause problems ranging from minor nuisances to being life-threatening. They can affect older persons in various ways and many seek out and use medications for relief. Here are a few special cases where issues can occur:

  • Vision Problems: With so much information that has to be squeezed onto small labels, the writing often is too small to read.
  • Hearing Loss: When directions for taking the medications are given by either the pharmacist or a health care provider they may be too difficult to hear. Maybe the person speaking is talking too softly, or there may be some other sounds or noise in the area. Patients may be reluctant or embarrassed to admit they have hearing problems, particularly an inability to hear higher-pitched sounds. Many have tinnitus (ringing in the ears) or may not even be aware of their deafness.
  • Mental Conditions: Due to mental conditions that range from dementia and Alzheimer’s to depression and anxiety, the ability to take medications correctly can be diminished.
  • Memory Loss: When medications are taken on a daily basis—or a number of times a day—it is easy to forget a dose.
  • Physical Limitations: Older persons often experience physical limits, such as difficulty in opening containers, spilling liquid medications, or dropping tablets on the floor.

Remember: Many older people take multiple medications. Whether their medications are prescription drugs or over-the-counter or both, interactions, adverse reactions, and side effects can happen—so look for these possibilities.

Tips for Managing

  • Vision Problems: Before you leave a pharmacy or doctor’s office, take the time to read the labels yourself. If you can’t, ask for separate written instructions in larger, easy-to-read type.
  • Hearing Loss: When instructions are given orally, take the time to repeat them back. Don’t allow the person giving the instructions to merely assume that you understand them. Be aware that women with higher pitched voices may be more difficult to hear. If the surrounding area is noisy, ask to discuss your medications in a quieter place.
  • Mental Conditions: If you are taking medications for any mental conditions the most common side effect is drowsiness. This in turn can affect comprehension of pertinent information. When possible, have someone else accompany you to the doctor or pharmacy. Tell the provider that it’s OK for the other person to be listening to the instructions given.
  • Memory Loss: Taking multiple medications more than once a day can lead to confusion. Check-off sheets or weekly pillboxes (be sure to keep it out of a child’s reach) can be of some help. Devise a method that will work for you. Don’t trust your memory.
  • Physical Limitations: If opening medicine bottles is difficult, ask your pharmacist for ordinary caps rather than child-resistant ones (be sure to keep them out of a child’s reach). If pouring medications into a spoon is hard to do without spilling, use a measuring cup or a plastic syringe.


When using multiple medications, some people often don’t realize that over-the-counter medications can be just as important as prescription medications. Make sure all medications are reported to your doctor(s). This includes:

  • Medication from different doctors
  • Over-the-counter medications
  • Herbs and vitamins (“alternative medications”)

Ask your pharmacist if he or she would be willing to include non-prescription drugs in your pharmacy’s “patient profile.” Use one pharmacy rather than multiple pharmacies so records can be kept at a single location.

Planning ahead and being careful may not solve all of your limitations, but it may be of real help.


If you have a question about medication interactions, accidentally took an extra dose or forgot to take one, call the Washington Poison Center 24-hour help line at 1-800-222-1222.