Managing Treatments

Challenges for Cancer in the Elderly During Treatment

Seniors can walk an especially difficult road during cancer treatment. These special considerations can make treatment easier for both the patient and the caregiver.

Caring for someone with cancer, regardless of his or her age, takes extra consideration. As life expectancy rises, there’s a greater likelihood that an elderly person will either be a cancer survivor or have to fight that battle in his or her senior years. When it comes to cancer in the elderly, a study published in the Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association noted that incidence of cancer increases exponentially with age. During the treatment phase, as a caregiver, you need to take a few extra precautions as you navigate the side effects and other challenges of your loved one’s cancer treatment.

Increased Risk of Falling

Seniors are already at an enhanced risk to slip, with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noting that over 2.5 million seniors are seen in an emergency room for fall injuries annually. Cancer and the elderly can further complicate this issue, as side effects of chemotherapy, radiation or surgical procedures can leave them feeling lethargic, weak and groggy — the perfect storm for an accidental tumble.

To assure your loved one is safe in his or her home, consider making clear paths throughout the house that are regularly traveled. Assure the path is clear of sliding rugs or uneven floor transitions and has plenty of room to navigate with a walker or wheelchair, if needed. Also, most falls occur in the bathroom. Thus, keep your loved one safe by eliminating rugs there and installing grab bars near the toilet and in the shower, as well as adding a slip resistant surface to the shower floor.

Increased Risk of Isolation

Isolation, or not spending enough quality time with friends and family, can lead to a litany of problem. Not only can decreased socialization lead to mental health issues like depression, isolation has also been linked to increased rate of memory loss. For seniors living with cancer, the situation gets even more complicated. The senior in your life going through treatment may simply not feel up to a visit from a friend, and sometimes treatment protocol leads to fewer visits to avoid exposure to common illnesses that are dangerous for an immunosuppressed cancer patient.

Encourage your loved one to stay connected to a peer group as best as he or she can, possibly offering to show him or her how to connect in nontraditional ways like email, video calls or even online support groups. Offer to help host a short coffee date at your loved one’s house for close friends, taking care of all the invitations, setup and cleanup on your own. Finally, encourage your loved one to get involved with any local support groups. These groups are often filled with peers who can relate to his or her current lifestyle and are full of resources and sharing.

Increased Risk of Medication Issues

Seniors, in general, tend to be on more medication than younger counterparts. Cancer in the elderly complicates this issue, requiring more medications and prescriptions be added to the daily or weekly regimen. This addition of medications can lead to drug interactions or medication errors, such as taking too much of a medication or inadvertently missing doses.

Work with your loved one to develop a schedule for medications, and support them by filling weekly or monthly pillboxes to manage doses and times. Finally, be honest with physicians about any medications or supplements your loved one is taking and any odd effects that may be happening after the introduction of treatment.

Keep your senior loved one as healthy as possible during cancer treatment by keeping them safe and connected.

When taking care of an elderly person with cancer, you may need more assistance than expected. Special care and consideration is available at UVA Cancer Center.

Haley Burress
Haley Burress