Story 3

‘Keeping Going’: Are My Medicines A Help or a Hindrance?

Lorna has just moved into a small warden-controlled ground floor flat to be near her son. Only a few years ago she used to love potting out flowers and growing vegetables in the garden, but her 84-year-old knees are now so bad that if she sits down, she struggles to get up again. She has swapped her walking stick for a wheely zimmer which she managed to find in a second-hand shop. She joked with the young woman who sold it to her that they should call it a ‘second-leg shop’ as that is what she could really do with! Thanks to her new purchase she is able to get outdoors again and sometimes makes it to the park at the end of her road. What a joy it is! But her world is getting smaller.

Lorna with her zimmer frame, remembering how she used to be more mobile in the garden

Moving home was stressful. Lorna had accumulated a lot of things. Her children call it ‘clutter’. Lorna and her friend Sue often talk about this when they meet each week for a cup of tea and a game of Scrabble. “They don’t understand do they, these young ones? They don’t see that all the things they call ‘clutter’ are our fond memories. They just expect us to throw everything out!” The thing that vexes them both most is having to throw out cherished reminders of their long lives to make space for new reminders of their old age: walking aids, seat raisers and other bits of medical paraphernalia. Lorna keeps a shopping bag full of pills on the floor next to her recliner chair. She keeps another box under her bed: her ‘spares’. The spares are there for those odd occasions when she forgets to order her pills on time, and to cover those occasions – God forbid – when she runs out of pills at a bank holiday weekend. Bodies are not like banks, thinks Lorna. You can’t just shut them down for a weekend - they keep going. At least they keep going if you’re lucky and you remember to take your pills!

Lorna sitting in her recliner chair, looking at her big bag of medicines

Ordering pills is such a palaver. It seems impossible to get the timing right when all the different pills run out at different times of the month. If you order them a few days early a receptionist tells you that you’re ‘over-using’. ‘Over-using?’ Do they have any idea what it is like trying to juggle a diary that is cluttered with medical appointments like Lorna’s is! If you forget to order the pills on time you are worried sick that the same receptionist will give you a proper telling off for not taking them. Sometimes you can’t win.

Lorna keeps another plastic bag dangling over her wheely zimmer, so that when she pushes it from room to room she can grab her spray and her inhaler if she gets short of breath. Sue, Lorna’s Scrabble-playing friend, has recently had an oxygen tank delivered into her living room and now spends most of her day with plastic tubes up her nose, tethered to a long plastic pipe that follows her around. Lorna thinks this must be horrible and hopes she will never need anything like it. She would get into an awful tangle with her zimmer and would hate the very idea of a gas tank in her house.

Sue and Lorna often chat about their health and their pills. It’s a useful distraction when they are struggling to think of a word to make up with their Scrabble letters. This seems to happen more often these days…

Lorna looked up from the Scrabble board. “All these pills we take, they can’t be good for you, can they?” she asked. “I never managed to get around to asking my old GP about it”. Lorna will miss Dr Duncan, the GP she left behind in her previous surgery. “He was such a nice man, and he was brilliant when Bert was poorly.” But for some reason the long list of pills had always seemed like a particularly thorny issue to raise, as she didn’t want to offend him. After all, he was prescribing all those medicines every month. Lorna felt sure that Dr Duncan must know what he is doing. Still, she couldn’t help thinking that she was on far too many pills – twelve at the last count, lots of different colours and shapes. Sue wasn’t far behind.

“It’s funny you should say that about your pills” Sue replied, as she pulled a newspaper cutting out of her handbag. Sue was a great enthusiast for cutting out stories from the newspaper. She might need oxygen to help her breathe, but her mind was as sharp as a razor and she was always on top of current affairs. “Take a look at this”. She passed the crumpled cutting to Lorna and turned her gaze back to her Scrabble letters.

Lorna and her friend Sue playing scrabble and looking at a newspaper cutting

Lorna adjusted her glasses and sat back in her recliner chair. The headline, in large bold letters read: “DOCTORS ARE MAKING THEIR PATIENTS ILL”. Lorna was sceptical at first. Surely it was just another of those stories made to sell newspapers and upset overworked doctors like Dr Duncan! She continued reading: Over 65% of patients prescribed ten or more drugs may experience a drug-drug interaction. The article explained that something called polypharmacy was becoming a big problem and that the World Health Organisation was campaigning so that something might be done about it, as it can sometimes be harmful to patients. Polypharmacy, she discovered, is the word used by doctors when people are taking lots of medicines. “Well, I’ve learned a new word.” said Lorna “It’s just a shame it is more than seven letters long as we could have written it down in our little notebook of good Scrabble words. I never know why doctors use such long words and talk in riddles.”

Lorna continued: “Sue, it says that being on too many medicines can sometimes lead to falls and that people who are on ten or more medicines may be at particular risk! That means you, me, and most of our friends at the lunch club. And I am already wobbly enough on my feet.”

Lorna asked Sue if she could borrow the newspaper clipping so that she could show it to her new GP at the health centre down the road. She didn’t know him too well yet, but perhaps she could pluck up courage, newspaper-in-hand, to ask about her pills. She slipped it between the pages of her busy diary: After all, my new GP hasn’t been prescribing them for me all these years, has he? Maybe that will make it easier?

Illustrations Satoshi Hashimoto

For Discussion


‘Keeping going’ may mean different things. What does it mean for you?


Are you, like Lorna, being asked to ‘juggle’ more tasks than you can manage by your health care professionals? Who could you discuss this with?


Often the doctor who started a patient’s medicines for their long-term conditions is no longer involved in that patient’s care. What challenges do you think this presents?


Keeping mobile is a high priority for older people. Taking lots of medicines can increase the risk of falls and other problems. How might you discuss these risks with your GP or pharmacist?