Staff have been known to steal residents' drugs

Every time you visit your mom in the assisted living home, she complains she isn’t getting her medication. When you question staff, they show you the medication log and it seems to indicate she is getting what the doctor prescribed. Is your mom just forgetting that she was given her medication? I wouldn’t be so sure.

Theft of prescription drugs is a growing problem nationally, especially controlled substances such as opioids for pain and benzodiazepines for anxiety. Health care workers have as much trouble with drug addiction as any other group and as a result, hospitals have put sophisticated systems in place to reduce drug theft.

However, assisted living facilities do not typically have those systems, so it is easier for an addicted caregiver or administrator to steal drugs. Sooner or later addicts get caught, but in the meantime the residents are suffering needlessly.

How do staff steal residents’ drugs? They may bypass family and phone a resident’s healthcare provider to ask for more medication or a stronger dose of the medication, claiming that her pain or anxiety is worse. The caregiver might also phone the pharmacy for a refill on a controlled substance the resident is no longer taking, gambling that no one will notice. Medications that are prescribed as “PRN” (administered as needed) are especially prone to theft because the caregiver can easily fake logs to show the drugs are being given when in fact they are not. Finally, the addicted caregiver will often work shifts when no one else is on duty so that there are no witnesses to their theft and falsification of the med logs.

What can you do to protect your mother from drug theft in her assisted living facility? Before you place her in a home, ask about the home’s policies and procedures for managing controlled substances. If two staff must be present to remove controlled substances from the locked medication cabinet, if one staff person counts the number of pills administered and another counts the number of pills remaining, if that reconciliation happens on a regular basis and is carefully documented, then the home has a good control system.

You can also prevent theft by asking your mother’s health care provider to alert you when the home asks to change her prescription. Talk to the pharmacy, too, because pharmacists are often the first to notice when something doesn’t look right with a prescription refill request. Finally, if you think your mother is not getting her medications, you can ask her health care provider for a drug level test to see what she is really getting.

Working closely with your mother’s doctor and pharmacist goes a long way to keeping her safe from medication theft. But it is also important to listen to your mother if she says she is not getting her medication. If she is grimacing and moaning from pain, but the logs show she is getting her medication, something is not right. Give yourself permission to keep asking questions until you get answers. Addicts count on you being too ignorant or too busy to notice their thefts. Don’t give them that advantage.

Visit to find out more about how the Long Term Care Ombudsman protects the rights of seniors. The public can also submit complaints online via the website.