Remembering to take prescribed medication can become increasingly difficult for people with dementia – but not taking it can be dangerous. We’ve compiled this guide to help make the whole process safer and less stressful for everyone.

Common challenges you might face:

1 - Confusion

People with dementia often have to take several different types of medication, particularly if they also have other medical conditions. Some medicines might have to be taken at certain times, some with food, some without…and it’s very easy to get confused.

2 - Packaging that’s difficult to open

Prescription drugs are often put in fiddly bottles or blister packs which anyone with dexterity issues could struggle to open. Sometimes this is deliberate; to prevent the medication falling into the wrong hands, (mainly children). However, these sort of safety measures, whilst necessary, can present even more challenges for people with dementia.

3 - Pills that are difficult to swallow

Certain pills can be extremely large and tricky to swallow, particularly if the person with dementia already struggles with swallowing food and drink.

4 - Forgetting to take them

Missing a dose, or taking it twice (because they forgot they’d already taken it) is one of the most common concerns families have, and rightly so because it could cause the person you love great harm.

What can you do?

1 - Provide cues

This could be anything from leaving post-it notes or messages in clear places around the house, to setting an alarm on a clock or phone to let them know they need to take them. You could try leaving the pills in a plastic cup with the time they’re supposed to take them (morning, afternoon etc) in certain areas of the house that they’re likely to be at that time. For example, morning pills could be left in the bathroom near their toothbrush, midday pills in the kitchen by the bread bin and evening pills on their bedside table.

2 - Organise a reminder phone call

It can be time consuming to have to ring all the time, but sometimes it’s the most straightforward way to ensure that a loved one is taking their medication. Giving them a call to remind them to take their pills (and even waiting on the phone while they take them) could help. However, you could also look into telecare, where you can pay professionals to ring up to check that medication has been remembered.

3 - Use outside help 

A friendly neighbour could come in handy to ensure medication is taken, or to help if they’re struggling to open pill containers, and you can’t get to the house. It’s often worth letting neighbours know about your loved one’s condition so you can give them a call if you’re concerned. Alternatively, many professional home carers can be put in charge of ensuring that the person with dementia remembers to take their medication.

4 - Use pill crushers

If the pills are big and hard to swallow, these handy gadgets can either split a tablet in two, to make it easier to swallow, or crush it down so it can be dissolved in a drink. Go here to find a pill crusher for only £3.40.

5 - Use pill boxes and dispensers

There’s an enormous array of containers and dispensers that can help you to manage medication; from simple plastic boxes to super safe lockable gadgets with alarms. Prices vary widely too - from less than £3 to more than £100 - so it’s important to do your research and make sure you find the one that works for you.

Here's 3 types of pill boxes and dispensers:

Pill boxes

These are plastic containers in which you can place a dose of pills to be taken at a specific time. You can get time of day pill boxes (morning, lunchtime, evening and night) and days of the week pill boxes to help organise doses so you can keep track of them. These are relatively cheap and easy to fill by a family member or carer. They’re useful if the person with dementia has enough cognition to remember to take pills, but likes to get them organised each week. For example, the Deluxe Week Day Pill Dispenser costs £7.89.

Pill box alarms

If the person you care for forgets to take their pills, a pill box alarm can help. They tend to have less space to hold pills, but will have an alarm (either using sound or vibration) to alert the person you care about when their medication is due. For example, the Vibrating Pill Box costs £14.99.

Automatic pill dispensers

These are dispensers that will automatically release the required medication dose into a tray or holder, often sounding an alarm each time to alert the person with dementia. The dispenser will be in the style of a covered tray where only the dose that’s required at that time is available, and most have 28 compartments which can last between one week and a month depending on how many doses you take each day. Go here to find out more about the new Unforgettable Lockable Automatic Pill Dispenser which costs £54.99.

Did you know?

Some pharmacists will fill a pill dispenser with a prescription, so you don’t have to do it yourself (they’ll give you the packaging and any leaflets or instructions for the medicines afterwards), but may charge a fee to do this. You may want to buy two dispensers so that one can still be used while the other is at the pharmacy.

Tip: If your loved one is going out during the day and needs to take medication then, you’ll need to put a dose in a portable pill dispenser as many of the automatic versions are too large and bulky to be carried around all day. For example, a Pocket Pill Reminder costs £6.17.

What if they refuse to take pills?

Reluctance or refusal to take medication is probably more common than you think., and it’s not difficult to see why. Your loved one may not remember it being prescribed, and the more you insist they need it, the more they refuse to take it… Since dementia can cause paranoia, they might also grow suspicious of you and your agenda. Here’s 4 ideas :

1 - Create a calm environment

Make sure the TV is turned down or off. You could try playing some soft, favourite music in the backgound to help them (and you) stay as calm as possible. If seeing the pill bottle might upset them…take the pills out of the bottle first. But if they still absolutely refuse to take it, don’t get annoyed or enter into an argument, just take it away and try again in 10-15 minutes.
Or consider one of the following

2- Get A Note from the doctor

Someone with dementia may be more willing to take medication if they can see a note from their doctor explaining why. Doctors are traditionally a trusted member of the community, particularly for those in the older generations, so you may find a loved one with dementia a little more open to taking their daily pills if they can see a note explaining why they’re taking them and what they’re for from someone in a position of medical authority.

3 - Do it together

No, we don’t mean you should take their medication…but if you do have any pills you need to take yourself (even if it’s just a vitamin pill), why not do it at the same time, saying ‘here’s yours and here’s mine.’ If you think this approach might work, but don’t take any pills yourself, you could consider use a sweet that looks like a pill…

4 - Disguise it

This can be a little controversial as nobody wants to mislead a loved one, but if not taking their pills could jeopardise their health, many would argue it’s worth being a little covert. You could try crushing the pills into sweet flavoured food such as apple sauce or yogurt, but be mindful that some drugs have a very strong taste and the person with dementia may still be able to detect them even within food.

Want to read more about medication? Here’s 3 more articles you might find interesting:

Check your meds: 10 prescription drugs that can cause memory loss

What are the drug treatments for dementia?

Meds management gets more difficult during the dementia journey