Ways To Support An Older Adult With Cancer

Have you ever known an older adult who battled cancer?  An individual with cancer often experiences a full range of emotions:  shock, fear, anger, bitterness, confusion and depression.  There are two main ways to support your family member, friend, or co-worker who has cancer.  The first, is to give emotional support and the second (and just as meaningful), is practical help.

Individuals with cancer are uncertain about their future, are unfamiliar with the health care professionals and treatments, and experience increased isolation as they may miss work or community functions in which they were previously active.

It is incredibly important to keep your relationship with your friend as “normal” as possible.  It is okay to spend time discussing the cancer treatment, but this shouldn’t be the focus of all future conversations. Remember, even in the depths of this crisis, your friend probably still has interests in national news, the weather, the happenings of their family members, and the like.  It is okay to continue to talk about activities with which you connect with your friend.  Perhaps this is gardening, sports, or church.

When offering emotional support, it is important (whether a phone call or face-to-face) to have enough time to talk and not be rushed.  Perhaps you have never been a good listener (as many of us aren’t)… but with a victim of cancer, you must improve your listening skills.  What does good listening offer your friend?  It offers your friend greater peace- it reduces his or her stress and anxiety.

Ways to be a good listener:

–          Devote enough time to listen fully

–          Place your cell phone on vibrate or turn it off

–          Give good eye contact

–          Sit close (not far across the room)

–          Ask “Do you feel like talking?” (if not, don’t take it personal, and try again later)

–          Listen and don’t focus on what you want to say next

It is acceptable to describe your own feelings.  For example, “I don’t know what to say” or “this is difficult to discuss”.  Moments of silence can be very natural.  Try not to change the subject your friend is talking about even it makes you feel a little uncomfortable.  Don’t cut your friend’s thoughts short by saying “you’ll be all right or don’t worry”.  Don’t force your thoughts or ideas on your friend.  It is appropriate to say, “Have you ever thought of…?”

Acknowledge how difficult it must be to have cancer.  Don’t try to cheer your friend up with “everything will be okay.”  This stops the person from being able to discuss how he or she really feels.  There are a few other things you should not do:

  •  Comment on your friend’s appearance in a negative way (for example how thin or pale he or she is)
  • Place pressure on your friend to be a certain way (for example, by saying “You are always so strong.”)
  • Offer unsolicited advice (wait to be asked for your opinion)
  • Share “war” stories about cancer (each experience is different)
  • Be afraid to touch your friend’s hand or offer a hug (consider asking if it is okay first)
  • Be ashamed of your own feelings (they are your own)

In regards to practical help, be aware of your own limitations.  For example, you may not like to cook, but enjoy yard work or cleaning.  Remember one or two simple tasks can offer tremendous support.  Consider setting a time limit (for example for 1-2 months) for your services and communicate this to your friend.  After this time, reconvene, and set up a plan for the next 1-2 months.  Keep in mind, your friend’s primary needs will probably change (and so might your personal schedule).  Be flexible and don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t cut the grass on your scheduled day, it will be there next weekend!  Finally, consider coordinating a group of friends to perform some of these chores on a rotating basis.

Suggestions for practical help:

–          Transportation (of grandchildren, to doctor apts., pet veterinary visits, pick up medicine at the pharmacy, hair appointments, or just take your friend out for a scenic drive)

–          Pull out the trash or take recycling

–          Clean the house or do laundry

–          Cut the grass or trim bushes

–          Run errands (ex. to the post office or dry cleaning)

–          Cook meals

–          Grocery shopping

–          Write letters or emails

–          Pay the bills (only offer this if you are a trusted family member or friend)

Be aware of the need for self-preservation as a caregiver.  The best gift you can give a loved one is a happy, healthy you!  Also be aware that the primary person that needs emotional support or practical help may NOT be the individual with cancer, but their primary support person.

Try sharing this web site with your loved one from the American Cancer Society:   www.cancer.org   On the top of the home page, there is a section that reads “Find Support and Treatment”.  Under this you find “Stories of Hope”; inspirational stories from real people who have beaten various types of cancer.




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