Donald, 74, leads an active life. He goes to the theater, does volunteer work, and plays golf. But when he sits down to breakfast he faces a plate full of pills. His wife, Judy, who at age 66 walks a mile twice a day, also stares down a pillbox first thing in the morning. Both dutifully swallow their medications once, twice, sometimes up to three times a day. But they admit there are times when they forget.

"It's very time consuming taking all these pills," says Donald. "I wish I had a pill in my pillbox that reminded me to take my pills."

They are not alone. Millions of older adults take several medications. Add vitamins, minerals, and other dietary supplements to the mix and you've got a schedule of pill swallowing that stretches throughout the day. For people with chronic medical conditions, keeping track of medications can feel like a full-time job.

Keeping Charts Simple

A recent study examined how doctors respond to seeing a chart of their patients' weekly medication schedules. The chart listed the days of the week and then the time of day that each pill was taken. The doctors' responses were often striking. They would look at the charts and say "Holy Mackerel! This really is complicated!"

After reviewing the charts, many of the doctors made changes that simplified their patients' medication schedules. People should tell their doctors when their regimens become too complicated.

Why So Many Medicines?

Most doctors know that taking many drugs multiple times a day creates problems. The more medicines you take, the harder it is to remember them, and the more likely it is that harmful medication interactions will occur. Still, many older people end up taking a handful of drugs every day. Sometimes it's necessary; a lot of older adults with multiple medical problems need multiple medications. However, patients can work with their doctors to try to simplify their regiments.

Problems occur when there are several doctors involved who don’t know what the others are prescribing, or when the patient and primary physician don’t spend enough time reviewing the patient's medicines.

Ways to Simplify

It often helps if you bring in your pills, or at least a list of your medications each time you go to the doctor. It's amazing how often your doctor's list will differ from yours.

Your doctor should work with you to simplify your medication schedule. Ask if he or she can do the following:

  • Prescribe medications that are taken only once or twice a day
  • Have you take combination pills which have two medications in one tablet
  • Prescribe medications that will not interact with each other

How to Be Proactive

There are things you can do to reduce the complexity of your medication schedule. The experts offer the following tips:

  • Tell your doctor if you have problems remembering to take all your medicines. Creating your own medication chart may help illustrate the complexity.
  • Use seven-day pillboxes to keep track of your doses.
  • Use one pharmacy for buying all of your medication. This will enable the pharmacist to double-check for potential harmful interactions among all the medicines you take.
  • Understand what each pill does so that if your condition changes you can tell your doctor that you might need a change in your medicines.