Apps to help manage medications in the elderly: What I’m looking for

I’ve been interested in apps for the caregivers of elders, but like many physicians, I’ve been too busy to seriously research them or try them out.

Time to change that. No, I’m not going to exhaustively research and review all caregiver apps on the market.

But, as I’ve been invited to give a technology talk to a local group of family caregivers later this summer, I would like to see if I can find a few specific apps or tools that are likely to help caregivers.

As this is an event specifically for younger caregivers, I’m expecting a group of caregivers that is generally comfortable with smartphones.

The care recipients, however, are primarily older adults with dementia. So this is a good match for my geriatrics background.

Which apps should I look for? I’m going to start by looking for apps that can support issues that I spend a lot of time counseling families on. As a major such issue is medication management, I’ll start my app search there.

How I usually advise caregivers on medications

I spend a lot of my clinical time both reviewing medications, and advising families on how to properly handle medications. Here’s what we usually end up discussing:

Maintaining an accurate and current list of all prescribed medications is essential. Older adults with dementia tend to see a lot of doctors, and have a lot of medications prescribed. Keeping track of them is crucial because:

  • Many medications have cognitive side-effects. These include sleep medications, allergy medications, overactive bladder medications, and others. (Unfortunately, although all these medications are on the Beer’s list, they continue to be often prescribed to older adults with dementia.) When an elder is getting worse cognitively, or has other complaints, it’s essential to be able to review an accurate medication list.
  • The treatment plan for any medical complaint should only be made after review of a current medication list.

Keeping track of which medications the person is regularly taking is important. There is what’s been prescribed – or otherwise is on the list of biologically active substances regularly taken, many of which may be over-the-counter drugs or supplements — and then there’s what’s being taken most days. Although it can be theoretically be useful to have a log of when every single pill was taken, what is usually most useful is to start with a general sense of whether the patient is taking the drug regularly or not.

  • For example, many older patients avoid their diuretics because they don’t want to have to pee more often. It’s important to find this out before attempting to increase the dose of blood pressure medication to bring hypertension under better control.
  • In other cases, patients are not taking a medication due to financial considerations, or concern about side-effects, or because their cousin Joe had a bad experience with it. All these issues merit a non-judgmental conversation, which can only get started when clinicians are alerted to the fact that patients are not taking prescribed medications.

Keeping track of how often a person takes “as needed” medications is important. These include medications for pain, for abdominal symptoms (heartburn, constipation), and even sometimes insulin.

  • Reviewing the use of “as-needed” medication is needed to track the progression/resolution of a problem, and to inform future medication adjustments.
  • Caregivers (and assisted living facility staff, for that matter) routinely underestimate the importance of tracking use of “as needed” medications; I know this because I often get blank looks when I ask how often an older person is requiring their “as-needed” medication.

Cognitively impaired older adults often need help remembering to take their medications. They also often need help refilling prescriptions.

  • This can be a delicate matter, especially for those with only mild dementia who are often resistant to supervision or assistance from others. Still, it’s a real problem.

App features to support dementia caregivers

Given that I find myself repeatedly discussing the above issues with dementia caregivers, I’ll be looking for apps that can support caregivers and clinicians in these arenas. Specifically, I’m looking for apps that:

Make it easy for families to maintain an accurate and up-to-date medication list. Ideally this would be easy even if the patient sees multiple providers or uses multiple pharmacies (both situations are common among the elderly). It should also be very easy to enter medications and dosages, as well as update the list.

  • What I really hope to find are apps that don’t require laborious  manual entry of long drug names and dosages. If I can snap a picture of a check, why can’t caregivers snap a picture of their prescriptions and have the medication entered into their list?

Make it easy for families to share the list with clinicians. I once had a young caregiver hand me her smartphone, so that I could copy the medication list. Which of course was not formatted for the use of clinicians. (All the meds were organized by “morning meds,” “noon meds,” “evening meds,” which is handy for the caregiver but a pain for the busy clinician.)

  • At a minimum, it should be easy to print a medication list that can be handed to a clinician. Paper is not yet so outdated; every doctor’s office is equipped to scan paper and enter into its electronic record system.

Make it easy for caregivers to track the use of “as-needed” medications. A good tool should treat “as needed” medications differently from the others on the list. I would love to find something that encourages caregivers to note when these “as needed” medications are used.

  • Bonus if the tool includes a little text field so that caregivers can note how the patient felt after using the medication. (We clinicians need to know whether we are getting successful symptom control or not.)
  • Big bonus if the tool can summarize how much “as needed” medication was used over a given interval, either via text or graphic. I have in the past had caregivers keep time charts to track when they gave pain medication for an elderly person with advanced arthritis, and then found myself laboriously counting how many doses in a day, in a week, all in order to adjust the person’s long-acting pain medication. Surely tech tools can make this a little easier for all involved.

What about features to remind a person to take their medication at specific times of day? I’m interested in this too, but honestly it’s less of a priority to me. This is because I’ve found that when it comes to helping an elder take daily medications, the physical set-up and the establishment of a daily routine end up being very important. Would a dinging device three times daily also help? Maybe. But it’s not what I most want to find for caregivers at this point.

Needless to say, any medication tool for use by older adults and caregivers should be usable by those who have 10+ medications on their list.

Last but not least, I’d like to find tools that are available for both iPhone and Android.

If you have come across any medication apps or tools that you think might meet my criteria, please comment below.

Leslie Kernisan is an internal medicine physician and geriatrician who blogs at GeriTech.

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