4 Ways to Care for Older Patients With Cancer

Advice for providing the best care possible

If you’re caring for an aging loved one with cancer, you face challenges: Logistical challenges. Emotional challenges. Challenges that affect your own health.

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Dale Shepard, MD, PhD, has witnessed this firsthand in his patients and in the families who care for them. He offers the following advice for providing the best care possible and keeping yourself healthy at the same time.

1. Find the appropriate resources

Older patients have different needs. Fortunately, there are geriatric-specific resources that can help both you and your loved one: home-care services, support groups, community centers, coverage for costly medical equipment and more.

The key is finding out about these services and learning how to use them. Start by discussing your options with a social worker. Social workers have experience navigating the healthcare system and can support your needs.

Don’t become so focused on the health of your loved one that you ignore your own health problems. The healthier you are, the better the care you can provide.

2. Find the right oncologist

Too often oncologists don’t want to treat patients because of their age, Dr. Shepard says. Or they don’t properly factor in the other health issues that come with age. He recommends finding an oncologist who treats older patients regularly. Such a doctor is more likely to understand all the issues involved. Care will improve as a result.

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3. Take care of yourself

Unfortunately, caregivers frequently overlook this important advice. Older patients with cancer usually have older caregivers: a spouse or child who may also have medical issues. As a caregiver, your own medical issues may affect treatment recommendations for your loved ones, so be clear about those issues with doctors. Don’t become so focused on the health of your loved one that you ignore your own health problems. The healthier you are, the better the care you can provide.

4. Keep the goals of care in mind

You, your loved ones and their doctors need to discuss treatment options and the goals of care openly and honestly. Some issues are very specific to older patients.

For example, older patients may decline chemotherapy because of a relative’s negative experience with treatment and side effects — particularly if they are concerned about quality of life, not length of life. However, those treatments have improved a great deal through the years.

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Some older patients also decline chemotherapy out of fear they’ll be a burden on their families. On the other hand, they are sometimes willing to get treatment because they think their families expect it. For all these reasons, honest discussion is crucial. Talk about the treatments, the likely side effects, the benefits and motivations for treatment decisions.

As a caregiver, you help your loved one make these critical decisions — and then help ensure that the goals of care are being met.

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