Caregiving Resources

Health & Wellness

Does my aging parent need that medication?

As your senior parent continues to age and to face many of the physical problems associated with the aging process, he or she may visit multiple providers for more specific issues. Each of these providers may prescribe a new medication to address the symptoms. When multiple medications are prescribed for a single patient by more than one health provider, it is called polypharmacy.

Some senior citizens require many medications to treat their conditions, but as the number of pills adds up, it can become more dangerous. In fact, seniors are sometimes taking so many different medications in one day that they lose track of what each one is and what it treats. Not only is polypharmacy dangerous for your aging parent’s current health, but it also can lead to additional risk factors, including:

  • A lack of communication between the many providers, leading to duplicate medications and even overdosing
  • The possibility for serious drug interactions that can cause confusion and falls
  • A recorded medication list that is either not up to date or is incomplete
  • The risk of skipping medications or even doubling-up medications because the dosing schedule is difficult to remember

SIGMA HomeCare can help your senior parent avoid these potentially life-threatening risks by asking three important questions each and every time a senior patient is prescribed a new drug.

What condition is this medication prescribed to treat?

Each and every time that your loved one is prescribed or is recommended to take a new medication by a primary-care physician or another doctor, ask this question. This is especially important if your parent is receiving a second medication for a previously treated condition. For example, if your loved one is already taking a blood pressure regulation medication and is prescribed another one, ask how the new drug complements the original one. Politely inquiring can highlight for your parent’s provider possible drug interactions, missing prescriptions from a documented medication list, and unnecessary overdoses of particular drugs.

A senior’s personal medication list should include everything that your loved one is currently taking, including all holistic or alternative remedies, all over-the-counter drugs, and all prescription medications. Commonly overlooked medications that should be on the list include:

  • Essential oils
  • Gums, lozenges, or other patches
  • Vitamins and supplements
  • Eye drops
  • Nutraceuticals
  • Nasal sprays
  • Muscle pain ointments
  • Lotions and salves

Sometimes families are hesitant to list holistic remedies or alternative therapies on these personal medication lists, but it is necessary for healthcare providers who prescribe drugs to have all the information possible in order to better serve your senior’s wellness needs.

Can any medications currently taken be combined, reduced, or eliminated?

In a perfect world, your parent’s primary-care doctor will faithfully check your loved one’s personal medication list at least every six months for maintenance and at every new appointment. However, physicians often have an overwhelming caseload, and it can be difficult for them to check every patient continually. If your senior’s physician does not offer to review the medication list at an appointment, you need to speak up about the possibility of altering the list, especially with an eye at reducing or eliminating drugs.

The same is true at the pharmacy when you are there to fill mediations. Most pharmacies utilize database technologies to double-check your loved one’s current medications for potential drug interactions. However, when there are multiple providers and possibly even multiple pharmacies providing prescriptions, warnings can slip through the cracks. Therefore, it is important that you keep a current personal medication list with you when you go to all appointments and pharmacy pick-ups so that you can ask about drug interactions.

Are there any side effects to watch for?

Many prescription medications can cause side effects, but the chances of having one are even greater when drugs are mixed. Common side effects like mood changes, dizziness, trouble sleeping, and appetite changes can be mild or more severe; either way, they likely indicate some sort of medication interaction issue that should be handled before it leads to more serious health concerns like heart or brain damage.

If you notice any of these side effects, or cognitive changes and bleeding, in your loved one, you should call or visit your senior’s provider. You will need to know how long the symptoms have been occurring to help pinpoint the cause of the side effects and to prevent future issues with related medications.

When you are not precise in your description of the side effects, sometimes providers recommend a new set of drugs to try to lessen the worrisome side effects. However, this is typically an unnecessary medication added on top of the troublesome drugs. This pile up is the way that polypharmacy can quickly escalate into more serious health problems.

How do you avoid flu and pneumonia?

Flu season in the United States typically runs from October into March, and the severity of the effects vary from year to year. For example, 2017 was a particularly bad year for the flu. Children and seniors were the hardest hit as usual, but even young adults, who are often known for being one of the most-immune age groups, suffered from the flu.

Sometimes the term “flu” can be confusing. Many people think of the flu as the stomach flu, but the dangers are greater with viral respiratory influenza, which can cause severe symptoms like:

  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Sneezing, congestion, and/or runny nose
  • Chest pressure and shortness of breath
  • Body and muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Dehydration
  • Loss of appetite

In addition to these symptoms, your senior can develop many other severe conditions. One of the worst among these is pneumonia. However, practicing good basic hygiene and getting vaccinations can help reduce the risk of infection for people who are often around seniors.

Why are flu and pneumonia risky for seniors?

Many people do not realize just how dangerous the flu virus can be for older adults. In fact, influenza can be especially devastating to those who are advanced in age or who are frail due to illness.

The flu is mostly spread through human contact and through the air. The virus also mutates yearly, so people need to be vaccinated annually to get protection from the most recent form. This is important to remember if you are around elderly loved ones who may be more susceptible.

Because of the annual mutation, it is difficult to guess how aggressive the flu virus will be each year. Many forms can compromise your senior’s respiratory function and therefore reduce oxygen intake. Less oxygen, in turn, can reduce the body’s ability to circulate blood, which affects the immune system. Then, when the immune system is working less efficiently, the entire body can shut down, including the lungs, the kidneys, and the heart.

When the influenza virus strongly attacks the lungs, it can cause secondary pneumonia that compromises the respiratory system. This includes pneumococcal pneumonia, which makes it difficult for you to clear your lungs normally and which makes you more at risk for additional infections. Unfortunately, the combination of the flu virus and pneumonia often lands older adults in the hospital when they suffer from the inability to breathe or from the increased risk of other infections.

Most pneumonia cases are caused by a bacterium rather than a virus, and you have to get a separate vaccine against pneumonia. This vaccine is given approximately every 10 years, and those who are high risk are most encouraged to get it. Groups that are high risk for pneumonia include:

  • Adults who are immunocompromised because of steroids or other medications
  • Adults who have chronic health issues like emphysema, asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Seniors

How do you help protect seniors from the flu and pneumonia?

Get vaccinated.

This is simply the most important preventative step to take to prevent the spread of the flu and pneumonia. Through countless scientific studies, vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective for almost everyone to receive. While some people do experience a slight reaction or side effect from the vaccine, it is much less than the effects of the full illness. In addition, you could coincidentally develop symptoms of illness right after a vaccine simply because you are exposed to germs all the time.

Medicare and most insurance policies cover vaccinations because they are such great methods of preventative medicine. However, if you discover that your insurance plan does not cover the necessary vaccines, your public health department or a local community clinic are other great resources that may be able to help you get vaccines at little or no cost to you.

Ideally, you want to get your vaccines around September or early October, which is before the flu season really gets underway. However, if you miss this window, it is never really too late to get these vaccinations because any amount of protection is better than no protection, especially with the pneumonia vaccine that lasts about a decade.

Getting the proper vaccinations is also important for family members and caregivers of your loved ones. Any person who spends time around your senior needs to be protected from getting the illnesses.

Get a hand-washing routine.

There are microscopic germs and living organisms on nearly every surface as well as in the air, and these beings can enter your eyes, nose, and mouth at any time. Therefore, one of the best and only ways to prevent infection from everything around you is to wash your hands regularly and effectively. In addition, you have to make sure that your senior’s hands are cleaned thoroughly and regularly as well. Finally, one of the biggest germ carriers are grandchildren, so make sure that kids have their hands washed with soap and water before they share hugs and kisses with their grandparents.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes that one of the best ways to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases like the flu and pneumonia is through proper hand washing. This means that hand-washing compliance is one of the main aspects of the national patient safety guidelines, and all SIGMA HomeCare caregivers are required to pass a supervised hand-washing test. In addition, supervisory visits to patients’ homes are conducted to maintain proper hand-washing protocol and frequency. Hand-washing data is monitored and analyzed to improve patient care and to reduce the spread of illness.

How do you manage Parkinson’s disease at home?

Parkinson’s disease affects loved ones’ lives every day with devastating symptoms that include:

  • Muscle tremors
  • Rigid arms and legs
  • Difficulty staying balanced and walking

Every year, about 60,000 Americans are initially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in addition to the roughly 1 million Americans that are already living with the condition. Although this neurological disease can be difficult, medication management and a regular exercise routine can improve patients’ daily lives.

How can medication help Parkinson’s disease?

Nerve cells in the brain produce a chemical known as dopamine that controls the body’s movements and that keeps the muscles fluid. Parkinson’s disease attacks those neurological cells, causing physical problems with:

  • Speaking
  • Chewing and swallowing food
  • Walking
  • Moving in other complex ways

However, certain medications, such as carbidopa levodopa (Sinemet), can help address and even correct these issues. This particular drug promotes improved functionality at a peak time of day that make it a lifeline for many Parkinson’s disease sufferers.

Like many strong, life-restoring drugs, this one requires time to find just the right individual dosage that promotes the ability to move while it also minimizes side effects. The SIGMA HomeCare team helps Parkinson’s patients with medication management, finding the best times to give it and the right amounts to administer.

How important is exercise for Parkinson’s disease?

When done in coordination with proper medication, exercise is invaluable for promoting balance and mobility and for preventing even further neurological damage. You should help your loved one find a regular exercise plan that can be implemented during the peak times when the medication is most effective. Activities that are beneficial to nerves, muscles, and joints include:

  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Stationary biking
  • Dancing
  • Swimming
  • Yoga or stretching

All exercise plans should be tailored for safety as well as improved health. For example, if tremors are an issue, it might be wise to choose walking over jogging or stationary bicycling over on-road bicycling. If falling is an issue, you could also use a modified stationary bicycle that is simply a stabilizer bar on a bed or on the floor with pedals that allow your loved one to pedal while seated in a safe position.

Although living at home with Parkinson’s disease can be difficult, finding the right balance of regular activity and medication can make it possible and even enjoyable for your loved one. If you are looking for more information about Parkinson’s disease, consider these resources:

  • American Parkinson Disease Foundation
  • National Institute of Neurological
  • Disorders and Stroke
  • Parkinson’s Resource Organization
  • Parkinson’s Foundation
  • Michael J. Fox Foundation

How do you identify and address alcohol abuse?

Many adults can enjoy a beer while watching a sporting event or a glass of wine at dinner, but sometimes that occasional drink can evolve into dependency on alcohol. This is true for adults of all ages, including your senior loved one.

Although people over the age of 65 are less likely to drink as much as younger people, the number of seniors who are participating in “high-risk drinking” increased about 65 percent from 2001 to 2013. A man consuming five or more drinks a day and a woman imbibing four or more drinks a day are defined by researchers as “high-risk drinkers.”

Of course, abusing alcohol is risky for any age, but there are additional risks for your senior parent.

What are causes and risk factors for senior alcohol abuse?

The first step to helping your senior loved one is to understand the root cause of the drinking behavior. Some older adults choose to drink to numb or to ignore their emotions about deteriorating health, the deaths of family members or friends, or problems with social isolation. Sometimes this type of drinking begins as just a drink to help bring sleep to a troubled mind at night, but this choice often spills over into other parts of the day to aid relaxation.

Because aging slows how the body processes all substances, including alcohol, the same number of drinks that your loved one could handle as a middle-aged adult now has a greater effect on him or her. This means that your senior will be more likely to have accidents related to alcohol, such as falls or even car accidents.

Women can also experience some alcohol-related problems specific to them, including an increased chance for liver disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Lowered cognitive abilities and memory loss are other possible side effects, especially if your loved one is also taking a medication that could negatively mix with alcohol.

What are the signs of alcohol abuse?

Alcohol abuse can be especially dangerous for seniors because the signs can be easily mistaken for symptoms of natural aging, such as forgetfulness and slowed reflexes. However, it is important to be aware of common signs of alcohol abuse for seniors that include:

  • Lying about how many drinks consumed
  • Becoming agitated when sober
  • Lacking attention to personal hygiene
  • Skipping appointments or family events
  • Frequently having more than one drink a day
  • Drinking to cope with sadness
  • Drinking to calm the nerves
  • Showing signs of drunkenness like slurred speech or stumbling
  • Smelling like alcohol

Remember, many people who are abusing alcohol are good at hiding their habits, but look for changing behaviors, and offer to help.

How do you handle a loved one with a drinking problem?

Talking with your loved one about his or her alcohol abuse can be awkward, but it is important. Even if your loved one becomes angry or defensive, stay calm and caring throughout the conversation.

You may also want to consider discussing the situation with your parent’s healthcare provider either through a separate appointment, a private note, or a regular meeting. The healthcare team needs all the relevant information about your loved one’s habits, so it is important that you are honest.

Your senior’s doctor may be able to provide valuable advice about what type of treatment will be most useful to your parent. Local social services and health department agencies can also give you contact information and direct you to other resources, such as a 12-step program, counseling services, or even more intensive inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation facilities. Your loved one will need all of his or her family and friends throughout recovery, so you may want to also consider programs that offer family counseling as part of the treatment.

Locating and treating the feelings or situations that trigger the drinking can be most beneficial to helping your senior cope with the alcohol abuse. Identifying underlying factors and then treating them can be more difficult, however, if your loved one has been abusing alcohol for many years. This is where professional services can be invaluable to the process.

As your parent is going through alcohol abuse treatment, remember that you will likely need counseling as well. Consider attending group meetings like Al-Anon or Families Anonymous that will better equip you to handle your loved one’s struggles with alcohol.

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