Assessing medication adherence in the elderly: which tools to use in clinical practice?

Drugs Aging. 2005;22(3):231-55. doi: 10.2165/00002512-200522030-00005.


Adherence to prescribed medication regimens is difficult for all patients and particularly challenging for the elderly. Medication adherence demands a working relationship between a patient or caregiver and prescriber that values open, honest discussion about medications, i.e. the administration schedule, intended benefits, adverse effects and costs. Although nonadherence to medications may be common among the elderly, fundamental reasons leading to nonadherence vary among patients. Demographic characteristics may help to identify elderly patients who are at risk for nonadherence. Inadequate or marginal health literacy among the elderly is common and warrants assessment. The number of co-morbid conditions and presence of cognitive, vision and/or hearing impairment may predispose the elderly to nonadherence. Similarly, medications themselves may contribute to nonadherence secondary to adverse effects or costs. Especially worrisome is nonadherence to 'less forgiving' drugs that, when missed, may lead to an adverse event (e.g. withdrawal symptoms) or disease exacerbation. Traditional methods for assessing medication adherence are unreliable. Direct questioning at the patient interview may not provide accurate assessments, especially if closed-ended, judgmental questions are posed. Prescription refill records and pill counts often overestimate true adherence rates. However, if elders are asked to describe how they take their medicines (using the Drug Regimen Unassisted Grading Scale or MedTake test tools), adherence problems can be identified in a non-threatening manner. Medication nonadherence should be suspected in elders who experience a decline in functional abilities. Predictors of medication nonadherence include specific disease states, such as cardiovascular diseases and depression. Technological aids to assessing medication adherence are available, but their utility is, thus far, primarily limited to a few research studies. These computerised devices, which assess adherence to oral and inhaled medications, may offer insight into difficult medication management problems. The most practical method of medication adherence assessment for most elderly patients may be through patient or caregiver interview using open-ended, non-threatening and non-judgmental questions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Patient Compliance* / psychology
  • Patient Education as Topic
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations / administration & dosage*
  • Pharmacists
  • Professional Role
  • Reminder Systems
  • Self Administration
  • Treatment Refusal* / psychology


  • Pharmaceutical Preparations