Caring for an elderly patient with cancer can be very challenging. Here are some tips to guide you during this difficult journey.
Every loss is painful, whether it is a loss of health, freedom, job, or someone you love. Grieving over these losses is normal, even if the feelings of sorrow last for weeks. However, if this sorrow becomes acute (losing all hope and joy) or chronic (continues for months) it may well be depression.
Caring for the Elderly
Among the elderly, depression is a common problem, made worse by the fact that only a small percentage get the timely help they need. After children, the elderly are the next most sensitive age group that needs care.
In some ways, children and the elderly show many similarities
- It is not very easy to understand what they think or feel, especially when there’s likely to be a generation gap.
- They can be humble and compliant but equally, can become very stubborn at times.
- When they fall ill, their energy levels drop dramatically. (Unlike children though, the elderly take much longer to recover, because their bodily functions have slowed down.)
- They need overall looking-after, which includes their physical, social, emotional and psychological well-being. (Unlike children, the elderly usually have a strong spiritual connect, coupled with lived wisdom … which caregivers often discount or even ignore.)
While depression is a debilitating condition, it is also very subtle. Most family members are lay people who are not trained to recognise or deal with depression … yet, they are the only ones who the elderly look to, for help! This is always a tricky situation.
Recognizing depression starts with recognising the symptoms and knowing how to read these subtle signs, like:
- Sorrow (which is either acute or chronic)
- Fatigue (physical or mental)
- Losing interest in hobbies or other pleasurable pastimes
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Loss of self-worth (worries about being a burden, feelings of worthlessness, self-loathing)
The main things that family members can keep in mind are:
- Not to be drawn into the ‘gloom’, which the depressed person can project. To the contrary, it helps if the family keeps up a bright and upbeat outlook
- Instead of one care-giver taking on the entire responsibility, it helps if family members take turns and share the load.
- The most important thing is to help the person to ‘make meaning’ from the painful cancer experience. Just being able to talk about it, is helpful and therapeutic. (Most elderly people come from a generation where cancer is regarded as a social taboo, hence they will tend to repress their feelings about it, rather than open up.)
- Focus on ‘quality’ of life by keeping the elderly person actively engaged in activities that they find worthwhile and enjoyable.
Case study – Caring for father-in-law
One such family has been dealing with emotional and mental distress to see their loved one endure cancer. Vineeta Rajeev Rai Choudhary, a housewife and a mother to a 3-year old baby, has been taking care of her father-in-law, who has cancer of the tongue.
Dividing responsibilities with other family members
She became the primary care-giver because her husband Rajeev Rai Choudhary, was working abroad. Vineeta and Rajeev divided the responsibility between themselves. Vineeta focused on providing her father-in-law the physical and emotional support, while Rajeev focused on and taking care of the financial needs of the medical treatments.
Mental and emotional support
Being the only one close to him, Vineeta motivated her father-in-law by making him realize how lucky he was, to have discovered the cancer before it was too late. This was his second occurence of cancer (the first episode was in 1994).
At home, he needed day-and-night help to move around. She engaged a nurse to help clean/ bathe him and generally keep him comfortable and in good spirits. She accompanied her father-in-law on frequent flights from Baroda to Ahmedabad and from Baroda to Mumbai for his radiation treatment in Tata Memorial Hospital. And she had to do all this, while also catering to the needs of her 2 year-old baby!
Today, her father-in-law is in good health and highly appreciates the care and support his daughter-in-law and his son have given him.
Vineeta is a great example of a dedicated care-giver, who provided amazing care without sacrificing her own needs and priorities!
Who is caring for the care-giver?
Care-givers must look after themselves physically and emotionally, while keeping their loved one happy and strong. Successful care-givers reach out and actively seek support for themselves, so that the painful experience can become an opportunity for their own growth.
- Are you a caregiver or know anyone who is? What challenges have you/they faced and what lessons can you share?
- During the difficult journey as a caregiver, how can you take care of yourself?
Written by Wasima Siddiqui, a first year student of Mass Communications from Mt. Carmel College, Bangalore . She found it a great pleasure to work with Cancer Awakens, and describes it as a thought-provoking experience. Thank you Wasima!