Good questions to keep in mind include: How does the drug work? How do we monitor if the drug is working or not working? What are potential side effects? How do I know if I'm experiencing a side effect? Is this a brand name or generic? Will a generic work in place of this brand name medication? Is this medicine safe to take with the other drugs I'm currently on?
Nearly 90 million people -- half of all U.S. adults -- have difficulty understanding and acting on health information, according to the National Council on Patient Information and Education. This is especially true of the elderly; almost 40 percent of them are unable to read a prescription label and 76 percent are unable to understand information given to them.
If you can, accompany your loved one to a physician's visit, or ask to speak with the physician or pharmacist over the phone to learn about the treatment.
One of the most important questions to ask your prescribing physician is, "What is this medicine for?" Asking questions "decreases the likelihood of writing prescriptions without full knowledge of therapies being used," Alexander said.
Said Wooten: "Make physicians say exactly why they're writing prescriptions," and ask if the new medicine is related to the drugs you're currently on. Drugs sometimes create the need for another drug to manage side effects, called cascade polypharmacy.
Make sure you know which medicines are meant to take every day, or which you can take as symptoms arise, Alexander said, in an effort to minimize both the pill burden and economic hardship.
"Doctors and patients alike are sometimes too quick to reach for the prescription pad in order to treat symptoms, when an non-pharmacological treatment could make more sense," Alexander said.
Ask your prescribing physicians if it is possible to minimize the number of different pills you're taking, or at least limit the number of medicines taken twice a day or more frequently. "Adherence [to treatment] decreases as the need to use the medicine twice or more frequently each day increases," Alexander said. Likewise, the more pills you take increases the risk of nonadherence.
One-third of older patients -- many with three or more chronic conditions -- have not talked with their prescription provider about all their medications within the past year, according to the National Council on Patient Information and Education.
One way to ensure your physician knows what medicine you're taking is to bring it with you to your appointment. Putting each drug in a bag "really makes people look in the medicine cabinet and say, 'What is this for?'" Wooten said.
Medicine means every treatment or therapy you take; over-the-counter drugs, herbal therapies, vitamins and supplements, and prescription medication.
"For some reason, people think that something you buy at a grocery store isn't a drug, but it is," Wooten said, "and your physician needs to know about it."
Experts agree that simple pill boxes are one of the most effective ways of organizing treatments, with labeled compartments for each day of the week, and even several rows of compartments for medication taken multiple times a day.
"They can dramatically simplify the process of taking prescription medication," Alexander said.