Tips to Help Elderly Patients With Cancer (You or a Loved One)

Two-time cancer survivor shares her learning experiences from helping her elderly mom cope with breast cancer (double mastectomy).

In my last post about my mom, she was, at age 83, recovering from a double mastectomy to treat an aggressive breast cancer. It feels like medical professionals and insurance companies are not always taking her age-related needs into consideration.

Here are tips to help an elderly cancer survivor.

Take a life summary to the hospital. Have a brief written description of the patient’s before-procedure status. Include where they live—independently, assisted living or skilled nursing. Write down the basic things they can or can’t do on their own, such as driving, walking (cane, walker, wheelchair, etc.), cooking, eating, medication management and administration, showering and getting dressed. In this document, state which things they can do, what they need help to do and how much help they needed at the point of arriving at the hospital. Include information about their mental status like degree of dementia, if present, and what their mental orientation has been in prior hospital procedures and stays. Do they stay oriented or do they become confused or disoriented?

Seek help of a social worker. Be prepared to work with a social worker, if available. In fact, jump on the opportunity if it is offered. Mom’s social worker was very helpful in arranging safe wheelchair transportation back to Mom’s assisted living residence. She also helped set up physical and occupational therapy. At my request, she corresponded with the head nurse at Mom’s assisted living. The result was that Mom didn’t need to go to transitional care because the same services could be provided at her assisted living home. This made the whole process easier on Mom. Location changes get harder with age. A new environment, new setting and new routines can take their toll on an elderly person.

Discuss the possibility of an extra hospital night. Consider discussing the possibility of an extra hospital night because older people sometimes take longer to recover from the same procedure as younger people. That being said, hospitals have lots of germs and being there longer means more exposure to those illnesses. Each situation is unique.

Help with the recovery. Mom’s recovery is slower and it seems harder for her older body to bounce back. Pneumonia is a risk, so I encourage everyone who sees or cares for Mom to ask her take a couple deep breaths and cough to help keep her lungs clear. She sometimes forgets or falls asleep.

Loss of conditioning can happen very quickly, so help the patient do their exercises, or if the patient can afford it, hire an elder care trainer to come in and help the patient actually do the exercises written in the folder that the OT and PT therapists leave with the patient. Elderly patients don’t always want to do or remember to do their “homework.”

I consider this an ongoing list of suggestions and thoughts as I continue to work through this process with Mom. We don’t know yet what other interventions may be discussed to help treat her. I also continue to remind myself that I am her supporter and cheerleader and she gets to make her own treatment decisions—whether I always agree with those choices or not. Please add your thoughts based on your own experiences.