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How to Assist Elderly Cancer Survivors


Breast cancer and melanoma survivor shares what she learned from helping her mom cope with breast cancer.

I learned some important things from going through breast cancer myself and then again with Mom. It was impossible not to compare experiences and choices and see many of them in the light of the difference in our ages at the time we each went through cancer. I was 46 at first diagnosis and Mom was 80.

It seemed like insurance companies, and even some of the medical professionals, did not always comprehend her age and health-related issues. To be part of the solution to this, please consider these ideas if you are or are helping an elderly cancer survivor and/or someone with other compounding health issues:

Know basic health information. Have a written pre-cancer surgery health and living situation summary. Take it to doctor appointments and to the hospital if there is going to be a surgery.

What adult daily living activities can they do on their own? Bathe, wash, dress, take medications? What do they need help to do? Do they have memory issues or dementia? How oriented have they been for previous hospital procedures and stays? Are they extremely sedentary or are they moving around? Will they do any of the occupational or physical therapy exercises on their own if they are given "homework?" Do they live on their own or in an assisted living facility? Who helps them and how often are they available to help them?

Talk to the social worker. If you are at the hospital, seek out this person as soon as you can in the process. Many of us have not worked with social workers before, but for a person dealing with age and/or other health issues in addition to cancer treatment, getting this professional involved is helpful. A social worker can coordinate post-hospital therapy arrangements and care. Sometimes an extra hospital night or a transitional care stay is helpful for the patient. Changing locations also gets more difficult with age. A social worker can determine if that is necessary or if services can be brought to the patient.

Plan that deconditioning happens quickly and recovery can be slower. I remember many of my mom's recoveries took longer. It was difficult for her to bounce back. We worried about pneumonia risk; I remember asking everyone who saw Mom to ask her to take a few deep breaths and cough to keep the lungs clear. Left to her own devices, Mom would easily forget or simply fall asleep.

The smartest thing that happened for my mom was the hiring of a trainer, specifically an elder care trainer, to come into her home and help her actually do her exercises - the "homework" that was assigned by the physical and occupational therapists. This helped greatly in her recovery, but it was not covered by her insurance.

Have the talk. It is difficult to talk about death and dying in our culture, but it is still important that loved ones know the wishes of the cancer patient if things go poorly. Consider a current health care directive or living will and verbal communication and designating a trusted person (family or friend) to make decisions if/when needed on behalf of the patient.

Coping with the needs of elderly cancer patients is still evolving. We will get better at this when we know and learn the unique issues involved with these circumstances. Mom and I each made very different choices based on our ages and health circumstances. It is important to have understanding and respect for those choices to provide the best care possible.

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