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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published January 06 2013

Minding our Elders: Mom mixes up medications

DEAR CAROL: My mom lives alone and seems to be suffering some form of dementia, though her doctor hasn’t pinned it down to one kind. Right now, the problem is how to manage her medications and vitamins. She’s supposed to be taking three medications daily, plus a vitamin. I have tried many different approaches. She currently has a pill box with separate compartments for morning, noon and night, with an alarm for each. I call her every night to remind her about her medications, but I find hidden pills around the house so she’s obviously not taking them right. Also, she seems to resent my reminders. Her health problems aren’t life-threatening, but the pills are important to her well-being. I wonder if she’s doing this just for control. – Andrew

DEAR ANDREW: While it’s not unheard of for people to resent direction from their adult children, it doesn’t sound to me as though your mom is doing this on purpose. The fact that she’s hiding some of her medications makes the situation sound more serious than just memory issues or rebellion. Confusion is often a major symptom of dementia. As you’ve found, this can be particularly troubling when it comes to properly taking medications even when the person is otherwise able to live alone.

I’ve been through a similar situation. One of the elders I cared for was physically very healthy. Normally, she didn’t need any regular medications, though she did take several supplements. However, she once developed a urinary tract infection, and needed a short round of antibiotics.

Our routine had been that I’d visit daily, make her lunch and generally check up on how she was doing. The first day she had the antibiotic, I gave her the noon pill and put the pills for that evening and the next morning in a marked, divided pill box.

When I visited at noon the next day, I saw that she hadn’t taken her evening or morning pills, but had moved them into different boxes in the container. I believe she simply couldn’t remember what she was supposed to do with them. The only solution at the time was to personally drive over and give them to her three times a day until they were gone. This was possible only because it was a short-term prescription. Even so, she soon exhibited many more symptoms that pointed to dementia, so we moved her to a nearby nursing home where other family members lived.

Your mom’s medication issues may be her most obvious problem, but she could be at risk for leaving her stove on or other safety risks. I’d check with her doctor for advice, but likely you’ll have to look at hiring some care for your mother. In-home care or assisted living may be an option.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.