When Jerry, age 71, came home from the drug store with his latest prescription, he placed all his pill bottles on the kitchen counter and counted them. “I take five different medications, and you take four,” he said to his wife. “We need a system. We need to know what medicines we have, what they’re for, and when we should take them.”
Modern medicine has made our lives better in many ways. It has helped us live longer, healthier lives. But people over 65 have to be careful when taking medications, especially when they’re taking many different drugs.
Some people refer to the pills, liquids, creams, or sprays they take as “medicine,” and other people call them “drugs.” Both words can mean:
Drugs you get without a doctor’s prescription are called over-the-counter medicines. Because mixing certain medicines can cause problems, be sure to let your doctor know about all the prescription and over-the-counter drugs you are taking.
If you’ve gone to your doctor because you don’t feel well, the doctor might decide a medicine will help and will write a prescription. Be sure you:
Questions to Ask Your Doctor About a New Medicine
Your pharmacist is an important part of your healthcare team. If you have questions about your medicine after you leave the doctor’s office, the pharmacist can answer many of them. For example, a pharmacist can tell you how and when to take your medicine, whether a drug may change how another medicine you are taking works, and any side effects you might have. Also, the pharmacist can answer questions about over-the-counter medications.
Try to have all your prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy so your records are in one place. The pharmacist will keep track of all your medications and will be able to tell you if a new drug might cause problems. If you’re not able to use just one pharmacy, show the new pharmacist your list of medicines and over-the-counter drugs when you drop off your prescription.
When you have a prescription filled:
Generic or Brand Name?
When getting a prescription filled, sometimes you can choose between either a generic or brand-name drug. Generic and brand-name medicines are alike because they act the same way in the body. They contain the same active ingredients—the part of the medicine that makes it work. A generic drug is the same as a brand-name drug in dosage, safety, strength, quality, the way it works, the way it is taken, and the way it should be used. Generic drugs usually cost less.
If you want a generic drug, ask your healthcare provider if that’s a choice. Not all drugs are available in the generic form, and there might be medical reasons your doctor prefers the brand-name medicine.
Your doctor has prescribed a medication. The pharmacist has filled the prescription. Now it’s up to you to take the medicine safely. Here are some tips that can help:
Medicines can cost a lot. If you have a drug plan through your insurance, you can probably save money by ordering yours from them rather than at your neighborhood pharmacy. Or, you might be thinking about buying yours on the Internet. But how can you tell which websites are safe and reliable? The Food and Drug Administration (see For More Information) has more information on buying medicines and medical products online.
Medicare Prescription Drug Plans
Medicare has prescription drug plans for people with Medicare to help save money on medicines. For information, please call 1-800-633-4227 (1-800-MEDICARE) or visit the Medicare website at www.medicare.gov.
Many of the ideas in this AgePage are also true for over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, like medicines to relieve coughs, cold, allergies, pain, and heartburn. Be careful when taking an OTC drug. For example, don’t take a cough and cold product if you only have a runny nose and no cough. And, check with your doctor before taking aspirin if you are on a blood-thinning medicine, because aspirin also slows blood clotting. Other things to remember:
Remember, medicines—whether prescription or over-the-counter—can hurt you if they aren’t used the right way. Learn to be a smart consumer of medicine.
Here are some helpful resources:
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Office of Communications and Knowledge Transfer
540 Gaither Road, Suite 2000
Rockville, MD 20850
American Geriatrics Society
40 Fulton Street, 18th Floor
New York, NY 10038
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
7500 Security Boulevard
Baltimore, MD 21244
Food and Drug Administration
Room 5377, Building 32
10903 New Hampshire Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20993
Partnership for Prescription Assistance
For more information on health and aging, contact:
To sign up for regular email alerts about new publications and other information from the NIA, go to www.nia.nih.gov/health.
Visit www.nihseniorhealth.gov, a senior-friendly website from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine. This website has health and wellness information for older adults. Special features make it simple to use. For example, you can click on a button to make the type larger.
National Institute on Aging
National Institutes of Health
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
Publication Date: December 2013
Page Last Updated: February 13, 2014