Are Your Aging Parents Taking Sedatives? Know The Dangers

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A recent newsletter from Dr. Elizabeth Landsverk, geriatrician, warns us that some recent studies show that nearly one out of eight adults in the US is prescribed a sedative (benzodiazepine). Is your aging loved one taking Valium (Diazepam), Ativan (Lorazepam), Xanax (Alprazolam) or Klonopin (Clonazepam)? All of these are addictive. As they lose their effectiveness over time, the prescribing physician often increases the dose. This leads to increased risk of side effects, such as falls, confusion, irritability, poor sleep and increased risk of dementia. When your aging parent also consumes alcohol with the medication, the result can be that they stop breathing.

Dr. Landsverk reports that The American Geriatrics Society has actually added benzos to a list of medications that should be avoided in patients over 65.

I have personally seen the side effects of such medication having a devastating effect on an 80 year old client I represented. She had been hospitalized for a medical procedure which had been completed. After the surgery, before going home, a doctor prescribed Ativan. There was no discernible reason to give her this anti-anxiety medication, as she didn’t feel particularly anxious. She was looking forward to being released from the hospital. But on her last night before she was to go home, the effect of Ativan caused her to feel unsteady. She got up from her hospital bed during the night to go to the bathroom and fell, fracturing her hip. Surgery and a long recovery followed. The fall was most likely caused by the side effects of Ativan, very commonly used. Dizziness and confusion happened and led to her fall. It should not have been used for her. The case was settled.

Why You Need To Look Into All Aging Parents’ Meds

All too often, adult children, spouses and partners of elders do not check their prescribed medications or ever question what physicians order for them. They trust the doctors. Perhaps sometimes that trust is not well placed. It used to be that all the information doctors used for medication decisions was unavailable to the general public. Now, anyone can look up a medication on the internet and read “contraindications”; i.e, when it should not be given and “adverse effects”, which list all the things that can go wrong, the side effects and problems the medication can create. If you want to prevent things going unnecessarily wrong, look at the list of medications and read about all of them.

It Can Be Uncomfortable

Questioning a physician as to why they are prescribing any medication, but particularly a sedative like those listed by Dr. Landsverk, can feel intimidating. Doctors may speak in “medicalese”, a foreign language for the general public. They use abbreviations usually known only to healthcare providers. They speak quickly. They often seem to be in a hurry. And some with the biggest egos do not like anyone to question them. Never mind. You deserve to know and if you are the one acting to protect an aging loved one, you have every right to question every medication. Ask your questions after you do your own basic research about any medication. With that in mind, you can raise reasonable issues you have.

The Takeaways

Our medical system is heavy with medication prescriptions. My own mother-in-law, Alice, who took very good care of herself and lived to be 96, was taking 14 pills a day toward the last part of her life. When anything new was prescribed, we raised questions. At one point, a wise geriatrician she had took her off even more of the medications she had been prescribed and she did feel better without them.

  1. If you know your elder is on sedatives, ask the prescribing M.D. why.
  2. Discuss the risks and benefits of any medication you have with the doctor. You and your elder have the right to know.
  3. If you are concerned about sedatives in particular, based on the American Geriatrics Society’s statement that elders should avoid them, you can discontinue them with the advice of a concerned healthcare provider who will monitor your aging parent when that or any medication is stopped.

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