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Be Your Own Advocate for Medication Safety
An older woman gestures as she speaks with a doctor in his exam room.

Older adults account for one in three Americans who use prescription medications and three in ten users of non-prescription (or over-the-counter) medications. They are also more likely to take multiple medications prescribed by different health care providers. 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. These factors put older adults at increased risk for problems, such as falls, depression, confusion and malnutrition.

Medication safety becomes increasingly important as we age. Older adults should be active participants in their health care. Work closely with your health care providers, pharmacists, and family members or other caregivers to stay healthy and active.

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 use.

Be your own health 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.

  • Take charge of your medications. If you see more than one health care provider who is prescribing medication for you, tell each one about all the medicines and supplements you take – don’t assume they know.
  • Be alert to new symptoms or health issues and contact your health care professional or pharmacist if you feel they could be due to a new medication or a change in dose or frequency.
  • If you have trouble hearing or understanding your health care provider, bring a trusted friend or family member with you to appointments to take notes, or ask the provider if it would be okay for you to record your conversation with a tape recorder or cell phone.
  • If possible, fill all your prescriptions at a single pharmacy; doing so allows the pharmacist to better identify potential interactions.
  • Go over your full list of medications with your doctor at each visit, but at least once a year. Confirm that all the medications you are taking are still necessary and determine which (if any) you can stop taking.
  • If you’ve been taking a medication (prescription or non-prescription) for a long time, ask your health care professional if it is still appropriate for you. The way your body processes medications changes with age.

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:

  • Purpose - What is this medicine supposed to do? How will I know if it’s working? Will I need regular tests to monitor my treatment?
  • Options - Can this medicine replace another medicine I am taking? Is there another way to treat this condition or symptom without medication?
  • Duration - How long will I take this medicine? Can I stop once I feel better?
  • Side effects - What symptoms or side effects can I expect with this medicine? Which ones should I be the most concerned about?
  • Accidents - What will happen if I miss a dose or accidentally take too much of this medicine?
  • Reactions - Can this medicine react with food or drink, over-the-counter medicines, other prescriptions or herbal or vitamin supplements?
  • Addiction - Can I become addicted to this medicine? Should I be concerned about others having access to this medicine?
  • Ownership - Are there any legal or safety issues I should consider about buying and owning this medication?
  • Directions - What does it mean to take this medication... On an empty stomach? With food or meals? With plenty of water? Two/three/four times a day? “As needed”?