It can be extremely dangerous for aging parents to rely only on memory when it comes to taking medication. It’s amazing how many aging folks have memory loss issues. A large percentage of those with memory problems go on to develop dementia.

Take this simple example of a senior couple. Both are in their mid 80s, but they’re independent and dad still drives locally. They take care of themselves. Except, unbeknownst to anybody, mom was forgetting to take her pills. Last month she had six left over at the end of the month, so she decided to take them all at once.

She ended up in the emergency room, but luckily she’ll be OK. Hopefully the rest of the family just got a wake-up call that all is not OK. At this point dad or the children need to step in and take a closer look at what’s going on. Oftentimes dad is in no position to take on the role due to his own age and limitations.

It’s great that medical advances allow us to live longer than ever and to enjoy our lives, but it comes with a price. The price is that most of us will need medication to control various chronic conditions, such as heart disease or high blood pressure. Another price is that once we take one medication, it can have side effects, oftentimes requiring another medication to counter those side effects. This can easily add up to taking 6 or 7 pills multiple times a day, enough to confuse anyone.

To further complicate matters, some of these medications are supposed to be taken three times a day, some two times a day, some before a meal and others with food. Like everybody else, our parents get distracted and easily lose track of time. If they have an appointment or an event that disrupts their normal routine they may forget to bring their required pills with them. What’s the worst that can happen? They can wind up in the hospital for neglecting to take them or worse, can take a fatal overdose trying to catch up.

Fortunately, there are electronic devices that can help with this, provided that a parent is willing and able to learn to use them. There are a variety of electronic pill dispenser boxes; some have sound alarms while others have flashing lights. Most of them can be set to go off once, twice or three times a day. There are even ones that drop the pill or pills out to make sure the user takes the correct ones at the correct time.

A time alarm dispenser would work great in the elderly couple example I gave above. The box will light up when it’s time to take a pill, then the electronic alarm sounds for one minute and repeats every few minutes until the person opens the dispenser. More often than not you would need two of them; one for mom and another for dad. This type of a device works best if both parents spend a lot of time at home, and that they know that the lights and buzzers are to remind them when it’s time for their medications.

But there’s something else to keep in mind. The medication-forgetting incident is a red flag. If a parent takes six days worth of pills at once, it’s a tip-off that something is going wrong with mom’s judgment. It could be an early sign of developing dementia. It may be just a case of forgetfulness, but it’s definitely a sign that it’s time to check out the reasons behind mom’s episode. Regular doctors or emergency room doctors may not suggest it, as they are busy with lots of patients. It may be up to you to take the follow up steps and suggest testing by a neurologist.

If your parent is taking multiple medications, you should open a dialog about their daily routine taking required medications. You should ask if he or she has ever forgotten to take them, and beyond that you should look at the bottles yourself. Find out when your parent gets medication refills. If it’s monthly, and you find full or partially full bottles at the end of the month, it’s time to get involved in the matter. Or, the reverse may be happening. Are all the pills gone by the middle of the month? Maybe mom keeps forgetting that she took them and is taking them again.

Having an engineering background, I am a huge fan of all the electronic devices, especially those that help us help our aging parents. New products are coming on the market all the time. But we still need to acknowledge the fact that our parents are aging and they are not going to be the same year after year. Devices can’t take the place of our own observations and actions to protect them.

Don’t wait until mom has an episode as a reason to have the necessary conversation with your parents about their future. Do your parents have Durable Power of Attorneys, or Health Care Proxies? How about a discussion about what would happen if either parent needed help at home? Now is the time to see an Estate Planning attorney, while your parents still have the capacity to make decisions about their future. Otherwise, you may be looking at a long, costly and often humiliating process of obtaining guardianship over them.