It can be extremely dangerous for aging parents to rely only on memory when it comes to taking medication. So many aging folks have memory loss issues. A large percentage of those with memory problems go on to develop dementia.
The reliance on memory to keep all the pills straight is a recipe for disaster.
Take Thomas’s case. He’s a loving son. He lives near his parents. He checks in on them, but they’re doing pretty well and he really doesn’t worry about them. Dad is 87 and Mom is 82. They’re independent. They still drive. They take care of themselves. Except that Mom was forgetting to take her pills. She had six left over at the end of the month, so she decided to take them all at once.
She ended up in the emergency room. She is lucky to survive. Thomas just got a wake-up call that all is not fine and he needs to pay more attention.
It’s great that medical advances allow us to live longer than ever and to enjoy our lives. But it comes with a price. One aspect of that price is that we need medication to control various chronic conditions, such as heart disease or high blood pressure. Then, once we take one medication, it can have side effects. We may need another medication to offset those side effects, and so on. Pretty soon, dear old Dad is supposed to take 6 or 7 pills more than once a day.
It gets really complicated when aging parents are supposed to take some of them three times a day. Like anyone, our parents get distracted. They lose track of time. They have an appointment or an event and they forget to put the pills in a pocket or purse. What’s the worst that can happen? They can take a fatal overdose or they can end up in the hospital.
Fortunately, there are electronic solutions to this, provided that a parent is willing and able to learn to use them. Thomas did an internet search for a product, realizing that memory is now an issue for both of his parents. He found an electronic pill dispenser box with an auditory alarm as well as a flashing light alarm. It can be set to go off twice a day. It lights up when it’s time to take a pill and then the electronic alarm sounds for 5 minutes and repeats until the person opens the dispenser. He bought two of them.
He’s only seen it working for a few days, but so far, so good. As both parents spend a lot of time at home, he can feel better about the fact that something is going to remind them when it’s time for their medications.
And, this whole medication-forgetting incident is a red flag warning. A trip to the emergency room does not always end well. If a parent takes six days’ worth of pills at once, it’s a tip-off that something is going wrong with her judgment. Could it be an early sign of developing dementia?
Perhaps, or perhaps not, but it’s definitely time to check out the reasons behind Mom’s episode. “Just forgetting” is not an inconsequential thing. Some testing by a neurologist and neuropsychologist may be in order. The emergency room physician is not going to suggest it. She or he is busy making sure that the elder is out of immediate danger and the doctor then moves on to the next patient.
It’s up to the family to take the follow up steps.
If your parent is taking multiple medications, it’s worth asking if he or she has ever forgotten to take one of them. Better yet, look at the bottles yourself next time you see your parent. Find out when your parent gets medication refills. If it’s monthly, and you find full or partially full bottles at the end of the month, it’s time to get involved in the matter.
I am a huge fan of all the electronic devices that help us help our aging parents. New products are coming on the market all the time, given our aging population. And, with that, we still need to attend to the fact that our parents are aging and they are not going to be the same year after year. Devices can’t take the place of our own observations and actions to protect them.
Thomas gets a free warning with few personal consequences when it comes to his Mom’s episode. As we do at AgingParents.com, I encouraged him to use this as a reason to have the necessary conversation with his parents about their future. Of course, they hadn’t discussed it at all. Does either parent have a Durable Power of Attorney? “No,” says Thomas. How about a discussion about what would happen if either parent needed help at home? “Never talked about it yet”, he says.
He’ll get some coaching from me on how to approach these topics and what he needs to cover. He will develop the confidence he needs to think ahead and be a watchful and responsible son. The trip to the ER has turned out to have unexpected benefits for Thomas.
Until next time,
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