Going through chemotherapy is traumatic at any age, but seniors may face particular difficulties. They may have pre-existing medical conditions that already impact their independence. This is a time when support is essential, both practical and emotional. Here are a few things to consider to help a senior through this difficult time.
Preparing for chemotherapy is not easy, and it can be upsetting. For a senior, there may be added complexities, but certain preparations should be considered regardless of age. If there is concern about hair loss, you could help the senior choose wigs to wear during treatment. Consider making the act of shaving hair an event that could be followed by a day out. Look to shop for comfortable clothes that are easy for a senior to put on, no matter how fatigued. In addition to fatigue, dry skin may become an issue, so advise them to use body lotion and lip balm to mitigate this. Make sure that the care team is aware of any non-cancer related medication to establish their safety. Additionally, consult with the team to develop a plan to maintain the senior's health through nutrition, mental stimulation, and physical activity.
Create a Support Network
No matter one's age, support is essential. Chemotherapy can be exhausting, stressful, and frightening, and it should not be faced alone. Support can alleviate some of the impact and give a senior an opportunity to rest. Basic acts of self-care can become daunting during chemo. This can itself become a source of anxiety. Delegating tasks to friends and loved ones, as well as to other caregivers, can be a way to reduce the strain. Organize rooms, prepare meals, clean, care for pets, and run errands. These tasks can become overwhelming if they accumulate. Emotional support will also be important. Being listened to and having someone to confide in can feel like a weight has been lifted. One way to maintain support is assembling a “phone team” to keep everyone up to date and aware when it's alright to contact and visit.
Chemotherapy can adversely affect taste and smell, leading to reduced appetite. However, a diet of up to 8,000 calories may be necessary for a senior during treatment. A big breakfast could be a good approach to deal with appetite loss. Consider foods high in fiber and calories, such as fruits, yogurts, smoothies, and whole-grain cereals, as they can alleviate some of chemotherapy's physical side effects. Also, make food more appealing by adding flavor through safe spices. It may be a good idea to avoid meals that need to be heated to minimize smells that might inhibit appetite. Make sure that there is snacking between meals throughout the day. Fruits and vegetables are good choices, as are yogurt and peanut butter. Lastly, look to minimize chemo-related nausea through cold ginger tea and water.
Chemotherapy can cause painful side effects. This is common for all ages, but older patients may be more prone to it. Pain relief is something that may become necessary. If pain is experienced, don't hesitate to alert the senior's care team so they can assess if medication should be provided. Unfortunately, with concerns about an opioid epidemic, there is fear of addiction. However, when used responsibly and where there is no history of addiction, opioids can be taken safely. One precaution to take is mindfulness of behavioral changes. Have a conversation with the senior about symptoms, as awareness can prevent escalation. Symptoms can include taking an excessive dosage or using medication to manage stressful or upsetting situations. Any use of pain relief that seems irregular should be communicated to the care team. Remember, however, that everyone deserves relief from pain. Sometimes, upsetting symptoms do occur, especially after withdrawal, but that is normal and does not equate to addiction.
No one can be prepared for chemotherapy, nor for providing support to someone going through it. Thankfully, there is much that can be done to ease the strain. Whatever care is provided, you will, above all, be ensuring that they do not face cancer alone.
Scott Sanders is the creator of CancerWell.org, which provides resources and support for anyone who has been affected by any form of cancer. He is also the author of the book Put Yourself First: A Guide to Self-care and Spiritual Wellness During and After Cancer Treatment, coming Summer 2018!