The Polypharmacy Drug Scam

When it comes to eldercare, there are plenty of hot topics needing attention these days.  They include things like installing tracking devices on the elderly, who’s going to pay for eldercare, using robots for eldercare, where Alzheimer’s really comes from and debates about whether vaccines for the elderly help or hurt you.


Think taking all those medications are safe? You may need to think again. Image courtesy of: Mountain343 (mobile)

Although I’ve touched on these and other topics in the LivingWithTheElderly.com blog, there’s one issue that sends the alarm bells in my head into overdrive. That is the issue of polypharmacy among the elderly.

Prior to entering eldercare, one of the hats I wore was that of a drug abuse counselor. In that role, one of the monsters needing taming was polypharmacy. It was one thing  to deal with an opioid addiction or alcohol abuse or some other type of drug problem. When you combined several drug problems one on top of another, the situation gets complicated.

Not only does the situation get complicated quick, it has ramifications in other areas. The drug addicts often made cocktails from many types of drugs. They liked the experience, yet when they overdosed or there were reactions, it was always a mess figuring out ways of counteracting the drug effects and knowing which drug or drugs was the main problem.

Although there is great concern with the elderly being swindled by financial scam artists, there is not the same concern with pharmacy scam artists. Since they trust their doctors, they often take medications without many questions. Then you have the current medical system where several doctors or specialists are involved and each of them also prescribes several medications.

In a short period of time, you can have an elderly loved one taking a dozen or more medications. Each doctor reassuring them that it’s safe and won’t interfere with the other medications. The problem is that they and you are at risk of being scammed. The doctors are also at risk of being scammed as well.  They often believe what the pharmacy reps tell them about drug safety and use.

The scam is ‘assuming the medication cocktails are safe’.  

I use the word scam, since there’s a lot of wild guessing about the effects of drugs together rather than hard evidence. One of the impacts of some of the HIPPA laws is that your health information is private. This means that other people’s health records are private as well. This limits the ability of  researchers to know for certain what the long term effects of polypharmacy and the drug interactions. There are studies where two or three drugs are looked at, even a few where seven to nine medications are considered. Beyond nine, the research and findings are rare as hen’s teeth.

When there are so few studies, then how can anyone give you solid reassurance that all the medications you’re on are safe, especially when researchers no longer have access to data on large dose polypharmacy? Things get even scarier when you consider that there are even fewer studies on the polypharmacy with recently developed drugs.

This means you need to be careful with any medication. It also means that you need to ask questions and make the most of your visits with your physician. You’ll also want to have a good working relationship with your pharmacist as well. Getting a second opinion may help you make better healthcare choices.

In the Family Caregiver Summit, I interviewed the nurse, Pam Jackson. In that interview, she covered ways of maximizing the visit with the eldercare physician. She also addressed the concerns of the elderly with common medications like aspirin. It’s an interview that makes a difference in the quality of care you are providing.

Best Wishes,

Jeff