Use the list below as a guide for questions about medications that you can ask your doctor or pharmacist.
What to ask the doctor about medications
- What is this drug supposed to do? Is it treating the cause of the problem or only the symptoms? If it’s the latter, is there any way to treat the cause?
- Is there another way to treat this problem, such as with a change in diet, exercise, or lifestyle?
- Is it safe for your parent to use this with the other medications or supplements she now uses?
- What is the proper dosage for someone my mother’s age? (Because the elderly tent to be sensitive to drugs, they should start at very low doses – often one-quarter to one-half of that given to a younger person – and then the does can be gradually increased as needed.)
- What time or times of day should she take it?
- How should she take it? Does she need to take it with food or drink? Or should she avoid any particular foods, drinks, or activities while taking it?
- What are the possible side effects or allergic reactions one should watch for or be aware of? What should I do if my parent has a bad reaction? (There are usually trade-offs to be made when treating elderly patients – for example, your parent may need to take a drug that worsens her confusion in order to get rid of the far more troubling hallucinations she is suffering. Weigh all the pros and cons with the doctor.)
- How long does it take for this drug to have an effect, and how will she know if it’s working? Is there a goal (a particular blood pressure, for example), that she is trying to achieve? Should she continue to take it even after she feels better? If not, when should she stop taking it? Your parent or you should check regularly with the doctor to find out if the drug is still needed or if the dose can be lowered.
- What if my parent misses a dose?
- Is it habit-forming? Will it be difficult for her to stop taking it?
- Is there an alternative that requires fewer doses each day (which might then be an easier regime for your parent to follow)?
- Are there remedies that might counter expected side effects (such as stool softeners for constipation or the active cultures in yoghurt to fight yeast infections)?
What to ask the pharmacist about medications
- Is there a generic version that is just as good, but less expensive?
- How should this medication be stored? (Away from light? In the refrigerator?)
- If your parent has trouble swallowing, is there a way to get it down more easily? Can she get this medication in liquid form, can the pulls be crushed, or can a capsule be opened and the powder mixed with food to make it easier to swallow?
- If she has trouble seeing, does the pharmacist have large-print labels?
- Can she get the medication in easy-to-open bottles (rather than those with childproof caps)?
- What is the expiration date?
- If it is a new prescription, is it possible to fill just half of it, to be sure there are no adverse effects, before paying for the entire prescription?
- Can you review the directions for me?
- Before you leave, check that this is actually the right medication. Read the label and be sure both the patient’s name and the drug name are correct. Some medication names differ by just a letter and busy pharmacists have been known to dole out the wrong drug.
Virginia Morris, How to Care for Aging Parents (New York: Workman Publications, 1996. 2004), pp. 219-221.
Elder law attorney, Terry Garrett, is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is an Approved Guardianship Attorney. She assists people in elder law, estate and special needs planning, guardianship and settling estates. She graduated with honors from Cornell University. She was on the Dean’s List at Wharton Business School. She earned her J.D. at Columbia Law School, receiving the Parker Award and a Mellon Fellowship.