Complexities of Care Planning 

Diagnosing the elderly with cancer can be very difficult. First and foremost, seniors may be hesitant and apprehensive about reporting health problems. Second, cancer may be the underlying cause, but not the observable symptom. (For example, a senior may fall and break an arm. Only after examining the bone break does the medical team discover weakness in the skeletal structure due to bone cancer.) Lastly, our elderly population may have additional medical or aging conditions simultaneously. My father has diabetes, Parkinson’s, and underwent heart by-pass surgery years ago. My mother has congestive heart failure, short term memory loss, and experienced a partial stroke last year. Deciphering disease, cause, and treatment programs can have multiple layers of complexity.

In many cases, older people with cancer may have heart disease, diabetes, dementia or Parkinson’s. A diagnosis of cancer may impact any/all of these health problems. Aging brings about changes in the metabolism of any/all seniors. The engine parts of the body may be slowing down and are increasingly inefficient due to any number of reasons…aging…diet…genetics…disease, etc.

Comprehensive Health Assessment is Needed

In general, older adults being treated for cancer may have some/all of the following characteristics:

  • Elders may be less tolerant of certain cancer treatments. Certain drugs effect people differently, and your immune system may already be compromised due to aging/health issues.
  • Their capacity to respond to the disease and accompanying treatment may be reduced due to physically decreased reserves.
  • Our aging population may have multiple medical problems requiring concurrent treatments. It is very important to have a medical professional involved in diagnosis, preventative maintenance, prescription and drug interaction.
  • Seniors may have problems with memory loss, or an inability to properly function with their normal activities of daily living (ADL’s). Many times some additional assistance and supervision through a homecare agency will keep seniors safe, while maintaining normal and timely medication schedules.
  • A support network of family, friends, or homecare staff can provide a supervisory presence to insure safety and dignity for seniors at home.

Obviously, medical professionals need to take into account an older patient’s current health and functionality. If an elder falls and breaks a hip or elbow, this recovery can greatly compromise cancer treatments. The recovery time may delay treatment, and require a prescription of physical therapy to increase strength and reduce future risks for a patient who may become weaker as a result of cancer treatment.

Elders can fight back against cancer. The many cancer survivors who lead an active lifestyle at an advanced age are living testaments to the need not to write off geriatric cancer patients, but rather to make sure they receive comprehensive assessments in developing the right care plan once they’ve been diagnosed.