Why does my father keep refusing to take his medicine, and how can I get him to take it?

1 answer | Last updated: Dec 03, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

My father, who has colorectal cancer, constantly "forgets" to take his medicine or refuses it outright. He gets really annoyed when I nag him, and I'm getting frustrated that he's not following the doctor's orders. What should I do?

Expert Answers

Eileen Saffran is executive director of the Gathering Place, a community-based cancer support center in Cleveland, Ohio.

Getting a parent to take medication is one of those common practical matters that drives caregivers crazy. It's tough to solve, but I've seen a few things work. First, it's important for your father's doctor to know that he's not taking his medication regularly, since this might have ramifications for his treatment. Plus, if the doctor knows what's going on, you can strategize with her and her staff about ways to get your father to take the situation more seriously.

Next, try to understand why your father is balking at taking the medication. Is it simply that he's forgetting? In this case, the doctor needs to know that memory problems are coming up, and maybe he can help with that, too.

It may be that your father doesn't take his medication simply because he feels confused and overwhelmed by his disease. In this case, you can take some simple, practical steps to help him get organized. Unless the medication must be refrigerated, you can get it ready ahead of time and set it out in simple, easy-to-take doses. If he's taking pills, get an egg carton and label each egg cup clearly with the date and time of each dose, then put the pills in the labeled sections. This helps your father feel more in control and can break through that nagging dynamic. I tell caregivers that if someone was constantly reminding me to take my medicine, I might feel grumpy, too. The more we can set up mechanisms to help patients be independent, the less they have to resist in order to feel like they're in charge.

If the problem continues, you can opt to have a nurse or professional caregiver come to your father's home and oversee his medications instead of you. Of course, you may be doing this anyway if you live at a distance, but even if you live nearby you may need to get some assistance, which will allow you to focus on emotional support and leave the policing to someone else.