Attention Caregivers: Are You Making These Common Medication Mistakes?
Split pill in half on hand in bright sunlight

With a record number of Americans now over the age of 65, countless numbers of adult “children” are stepping up to act as part- or full-time caregivers for their parents. Not only that, but after a serious injury or illness, many seniors suddenly find themselves acting as a caregiver to their spouse.

Caregivers are often responsible for managing complicated and confusing drug regimens and that puts them at risk for making dangerous mistakes. Plenty of data, including a recent consumer survey
reveals that many consumers fail to use medication properly. Caregivers everywhere should be aware that it’s easy to make mistakes with medication — and even small mistakes can have serious consequences.

Iffy on the Medication Instructions

“I basically just guessed. I didn’t think I was that far off.” That is a quote from one of the survey respondents who was confused by the instructions for taking a prescription drug. That conduct isn’t uncommon. 35% of respondents say they were confused by the instructions for taking a medication. 29% of that group did not get clarification from the doctor or pharmacist before taking the medication — essentially, they guessed.

Prescription labels are notoriously difficult to understand. Dr. Joanne Schwartzberg, director of aging and community health at the AMA says that, “Many mistakes result from dosing directions. For example: patients may read ‘Take two pills twice daily,’ and believe it means to ‘take two pills a day,’ rather than the intended instruction to take a total of four pills.”

Ask the doctor to explain and write down the dosing instructions for you, and then ask the pharmacist to review the instructions on the label with you. For more tips, read Guide for Managing Medications and Prescriptions.

Afraid to Question the Doctor

Hopefully, you respect and trust the doctor who is treating your loved one, but that doesn’t mean you should be timid about asking questions. Kevin B. Jones, M.D., says that “Most patients don’t want to annoy a physician and get abandoned, so they are afraid to ask questions. A person should be more afraid of not speaking to them. They should be more concerned about the things they are not learning, the things that are not being explained to them.”

The FDA advises that patients and caregivers should ask questions when getting a new prescription. And, because opioids are highly addictive and have many side effects, the FDA recommends asking if there are there non-opioid options. Indeed, even older people can get addicted to opioids.

Skipping or Splitting Medication

The high cost of some prescription medications drives some consumers to skip doses or cut pills in half.

According to the FDA, tablet splitting often involves buying higher strength tablets and then breaking the tablets in half or quarter doses as a way to lower drug costs. The practice can be risky because:

You might get confused about the correct dose
Equal distribution of medicine in split tablets is questionable
Some tablets are hard to split
Not all pills are safe to split

Though the FDA discourages the practice of tablet splitting, it recommends that the patient get advice directly from a doctor or pharmacist to determine whether it is appropriate or not for a particular drug.

For a variety of reasons, some patients simply cannot afford their medications. If that is the case:

  • Ask your doctor for prescription samples
    Go to the drug company’s website and look for coupons or financial assistance programs
    Ask your doctor or pharmacist if a generic version is available
    Compare prices at local pharmacies and mail-order pharmacies
    Uninformed about Counterfeit Drugs

According to the AARP, by all accounts, the drug supply in the US is among the safest and most controlled in the world. But it’s under a growing threat from organized and white-collar criminals pushing stolen, out-of-date, adulterated or fake medications. They make their way into pharmacies, nursing homes, hospitals and doctors’ offices. At best, they are suspect because they are sold outside of the regulated supply chains. At worst, they may be medically worthless or even toxic.” Yet, 54% of survey respondents report that they don’t check their medications to make sure that they’re not counterfeit.

The FDA advises consumers to purchase prescription medications from state-licensed pharmacies in the U.S., be vigilant when examining their personal medications, and pay attention to the presence of altered or unsealed containers or changes in the packaging of the product.


A Washington Post report concluded that, “Regardless of their literacy skills, patients are expected to manage multiple chronic diseases, to comply with drug regimens that have grown increasingly complicated and to operate sophisticated medical devices such as at-home chemotherapy equipment largely on their own.” These daunting tasks often fall to an adult “child” or spouse who, while overwhelmed with the physical and emotional demands of caring for the patient, can easily make a mistake in administering medication. Being aware of the common mistakes is the first step in avoiding them.

Nick West is the marketing manager for  When he is out of the office, you can find him traveling the world, hiking, and whipping up a perfect batch of peanut butter cookies.

Written by Guest Author
The Caregiver Space accepts contributions from experts for The Caregiver's Toolbox and provides a platform for all caregivers in Caregiver Stories. Please read our author guidelines for more information and use our contact form to submit guest articles.

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Share your thoughts


  1. It is about health literacy – not a “common mistake”. Stop blaming the caregiver. Both the MD and the pharmacist are legally responsible for education about medications. If the health literacy is not great then it is imperative to use alternative language to explain.

  2. Well if the instructions are wrong that is the prescriber or the pharmacies fault, not ours for reading it correctly.

  3. Get a pill cutter


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