Years ago, a patient with a cancer diagnosis, didn’t have as good of an outlook as older cancer patient does today. Older people were assumed to be too frail and fragile to withstand the course of typical cancer treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy.
Nowadays, things are different. Older people, those in their 80s and 90s, are undergoing rounds of chemo and radiation and living to tell the tale. In the US, the majority of cancer patients are over age 65, according to Scientific American. The number of older cancer patients is expected to continue to climb, to 70 percent by 2030.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis and deciding to undergo the recommended treatment is difficult for patients at any age, but can present particular challenges to the elderly. For one thing, certain types of cancer (such as leukemia and colon cancer) tend to be more aggressive in older patients. Additionally, few treatments have been studied in older patients (above the age of 70), so it can be difficult for doctors to say for sure whether a treatment will ultimately help a person or cause more suffering.
For anyone this life changing diagnosis is difficult. It brings about a change in lifestyle, routine and normalcy for many. However, there are ways you can support an elder going through this tough stage in life.
- Encourage Positive Thinking
While a person’s outlook and attitude do not affect whether or not he or she is likely to be diagnosed with cancer, how a person approaches the diagnosis and treatment can have an impact on the overall result.
For example, a study from Ohio State University suggested that people with certain psychosocial factors, such as a limited social circle, anxiety, depression and a pessimistic outlook, were more likely to need more treatment or to be readmitted to the hospital.
It might be difficult to look an older parent in the eye and tell him or her to “think positive” or to “put on a happy face.” But doing so can have a positive effect on his or her cancer treatment progress and results.
There are also a few ways you can help an older adult with cancer think positively. You can encourage him or her to participate in support groups, during which others with a similar diagnosis share their experiences and offer emotional support. You can also help your loved one to flip the switch on their thinking.
For example, if the patient has gotten a 1 in 500 prognoses, you can encourage him or her to think of themselves as the one, versus the 499. The odds might be stacked against him or her, but someone is going to survive, so it might as well be him or her.
Sometimes, the best way to support an older person is to be the person who listens to him or her. The American Cancer Society says that listening is often the best thing you can do for someone who has cancer.
When you visit your family member or friend, ask what he or she would like to talk about. And then let him or her talk. It’s very common for people to visit their loved ones and give them a monologue or outpouring of stories about other people who have had cancer.
While it feels rational to want to connect with your loved one by sharing your stories, keep in mind that they probably have already heard similar stories. They may not want to compare and contrast their own experience with that of other people.
- Offer to Take Care of Daily Errands
Another way to support an elderly loved one going through cancer treatment is to offer to take care of daily tasks or chores. Even if you’re not the designated caregiver, proposing to help out when you can be a huge burden off of the shoulders of the patient or the caregiver.
You don’t have to take on too much, either. Offering to toss a load of laundry in at the start of your visit and taking the load out to fold and put away before you go home can be very helpful. If the person has a pet, you can offer to take the dog out for a walk or make sure that the cat’s litter box get scooped. If the patient isn’t at home during treatment, you can offer to take the pet in until he or she returns home.
Another thing to do is to call your loved one before you head out for your grocery shopping, to see if he or she needs anything.
- Remember That the Patient is Still a Person
Often, once people get a cancer diagnosis, they transform into patients in the eyes of their friends and loved ones. Individuals who were once chummy and familiar become nervous and super formal around them.
The best way to support a loved one with cancer is to remember that he or she is still a person and still him or herself. If you were close to the person before cancer, stay close after to the person cancer. Don’t feel you have to walk on eggshells around him or her or that you need to be extra cautious about what you say.
If you’re not sure what to say to your friend or what he or she wants to talk about –ask! He or she might be glad for the opportunity to speak to someone in a real way.
- Make a Plan for the Future
Although you do want to keep thinking positive, it’s also important that you be there for your loved one and that you offer to help him or her make a plan for the future or end of life care. Sometimes, even after the treatment, the prognosis for elderly cancer patients isn’t good.
Hospitals and doctors don’t always know patient’s wishes or might not always be able to offer the emotional support a patient and his or her family needs at the end. With a plan in place, you can make sure that your loved one gets exactly what he or she wants and his or her end of life is as pleasant and peaceful as possible.