New study on the medication administration habits of older adults

Martha Sanders and Tracy Van Oss
From left: Occupational therapy professors Martha Sanders and Tracy Van Oss

Jan. 17, 2013 - How many pills do you take each day? According to a survey by the National Center for Health Statistics, more than half of adults over age 65 take at least three to four medications daily--some with repeat dosages--to treat chronic conditions and age-related changes. For even the sharpest minds, remembering to pop your pills that many times can be a challenge. An estimated 50 to 75 percent of all adults do not take medications properly, resulting in more than 125,000 deaths each year.

"Taking medications correctly is crucial to healthy aging for older adults with chronic conditions. It impacts both general health and daily functioning. Individuals who take medications as part of their daily routines develop 'habits' that help them remember to take medications," according to Martha J. Sanders, associate professor of occupational therapy in the School of Health Sciences.

Sanders and Tracy Van Oss, clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy, recently completed a study about the medication administration habits of older adults. They interviewed and observed 149 adults over age 65 who take four or more medications each day, about their habits. The findings appear in the current edition of The American Journal of Occupational Therapy.

The study suggests the following tips for remembering medications:

  1. Incorporate medications into daily routines. Do you eat breakfast at the same time every day? Do you have a nightly routine to wind down? How about reading the daily newspaper? One 78-year-old said he gets up in the morning, brushes his teeth, and opens his pill box. One 71-year-old woman takes her medication with each meal of the day.
  2. Utilize environmental cues. Signals in everyday life can serve as reminders. One 67-year-old woman interviewed for the study said she takes her medications with tea at 11:30 a.m., right before Bible devotion and watching a soap opera. Another regularly takes her medications when the first local weather report comes on "Good Morning America."
  3. Store medications in a highly visible area of the home. The most common locations for storing medication among study participants were in the kitchen and bathroom. Storing medications in areas that coincide with daily routines, such as making coffee or using the bathroom, can trigger a reminder. Many place medications in front of the microwave or next to the coffee maker.
  4. Use a gadget. There are many high- and low-tech items on the market. Pillbox planners can take the guesswork out of taking medications. Some pillboxes can be programmed with timed audio messages and vibrations.
  5. Plan for vacation and changes in schedules. Taking your medications shouldn't take a vacation even when you do. Use alarms, cell phone timers, or even watches to remind you to take medications if your usual schedule changes.

More than 50 percent of the study sample needed help in some aspect of taking medications. While occupational therapists do not prescribe medications, they can assist with successful adherence to a physician's advice by suggesting cues in everyday life that remind people to take their meds.

"Working with an occupational therapist in the home can facilitate teaching useful strategies involving routines, environmental cues, and various devices that can enhance medication adherence," says Van Oss. "Occupational therapists can help develop individualized medication routines, being mindful of a person's unique needs and schedule."

To read the entire abstract, visit The American Journal of Occupational Therapy online