Aging With Cancer: Strategies to Help You Cope

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GeriatricSupport.jpgBy Heather Valladarez and Midge Myhre, Department of Social Work

Did you know that one in every eight Americans is 65 or older? That comprises 13% of the United States' entire population.  

An important concern for individuals in this age group is their health. With advances in modern medicine, Americans are living longer and healthier lives.

However, as with people of all ages, life experiences and social situations can have a dramatic effect on quality of life, especially when dealing with an illness.

More than 60% of new cancers are diagnosed in individuals 65 years or older. Feeling stressed or lonely is fairly normal for patients and caregivers in this age group.

If you or someone you love is in this age group and navigating through a cancer diagnosis, it's important to remember that you are the same person you have always been. Even though you're in a different situation, you may be able to draw on some of your experiences to help you cope with the stress you now may be feeling.

If you're having difficulty coping or adjusting, here are some strategies you might find helpful.

Build your support system
A cancer diagnosis can be very difficult and sometimes isolating, but having someone you trust on your side can make this experience a little easier. Try to think of the "go-to" people in your life; people who you know you can count on whether it be for a ride or just a smile.

For some, these people are family members, friends, neighbors or church members. Ask your Social Work counselor about available support services at MD Anderson and/or in your community.

There are multiple support groups at MD Anderson, and even one geared specifically for older adults. Try a few and see how you like them.

Ask for help
Often, people with a cancer diagnosis express feeling like a burden to their family. Your children might be raising a family of their own and you might worry that asking for help will put too much pressure on them. This is a period of role transition in your life.

A very common concern that counselors hear from caregivers is that their loved one does not ask for assistance. Try to remember everything you have done for your loved ones in the past and allow them the privilege of helping you now. Once you begin to ask for help, you might be surprised at how many people are willing and really want to be there for you.

For caregivers, remember that a sense of independence is important to your loved one. Ask them what they would like help with and what they would like to do on their own.

Also, remember "once a parent, always a parent." Think of ways you and your loved one can keep this identity.

Communicate with your medical team

Meeting with your physician can feel overwhelming. A lot of information can be thrown at you very quickly. There are some things that you can do to help understand what is going on with your treatment plan.

Before your appointment, make a list of questions for your physician. Keep the list to about five questions to avoid information overload. If possible, bring someone with you to assist with gathering information. Four ears are better than two.

If you aren't able to bring someone with you, think about bringing an audio recorder so you and your family members can review it later. If you do bring a recorder, make sure your physician is aware that you're recording the session.

Keep in mind that it's OK to ask your physician how the recommended treatment will affect you at this age. You may not be aware, but there are physicians who specialize in the aging population. If you think it might be helpful, ask your medical team if you can see a geriatrician.

Enjoy life!
This might be one of the key ingredients to getting through a cancer diagnosis, and sometimes the most forgotten. Think of some simple things you can do to enjoy yourself, even if it is while you're in your physician's waiting room. Talk to other people and tell some jokes, laugh, smile or work on a puzzle. Whatever it is that makes you smile, do more of it!

At MD Anderson, there are a number of support services offered to patients and their caregivers, such as counseling, one-on-one peer support, support groups and more. For further information about any of these programs, contact the Department of Social Work at 713-792-6195.

Specific to this age group, we offer a support group called Aging With Cancer, which is open to patients 65 and older and their caregivers.

The group is held at the Integrative Medicine Center, every third Tuesday of the month, from noon to 1:30 p.m., starting in January 2012. Lunch is provided.

For more information contact Social Work counselors Heather Valladarez, 713-794-1154, or Midge Myhre, 713-792-7630.

Photo by John Everett

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