Caregiving Considerations

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2012

Key Messages

  • Caregivers can be family members, friends, hired professionals, or community organizations who provide an older adult with cancer vital physical, practical, and emotional support.
  • An older adult’s caregiving needs will change throughout the course of their disease.
  • Caregivers, especially spouses of older adults with cancer, may need physical and emotional support of their own.

Family members and friends often provide vital physical, practical, and emotional support to older adults with cancer. There are many ways to fulfill the role of caregiver. For some it may mean providing around-the-clock care. For others, it may mean arranging for outside help. No matter what the situation is, caregiving can sometimes feel as overwhelming as it does rewarding.

It is common for caregivers of older adults with cancer to discover they cannot physically or emotionally handle all of the necessary medical and non-medical tasks on their own. That is why it is important to understand what caregiving options are available and to seek help from family members, friends, hired professionals, and community organizations.

Caregiving tasks

Some caregiving tasks are done on an as-needed basis; others might need to be done every day. Because an older person with cancer will have different needs during the course of the disease, a caregiver’s responsibilities will also change.

Depending on the unique needs of the older adult being cared for, a caregiver’s responsibilities could include:

  • Giving medications
  • Monitoring symptoms
  • Advocating for appropriate medical care
  • Providing transportation to and from appointments, tests, and treatments
  • Communicating with the older adult’s health care team
  • Helping with housekeeping
  • Handling insurance issues
  • Managing finances
  • Preparing meals or buying groceries
  • Caring for pets
  • Participating in end-of-life care

The older spouse as the main caregiver

In some cases, the spouse of an older adult with cancer does most of the caregiving. If the spouse is elderly, he or she will likely need physical and emotional support from other family members, neighbors, or social workers. This may be especially true if the caregiving spouse also has health issues.

Like any caregiver, the spouse of an older adult with cancer may experience emotional distress, financial hardship, an inability to maintain a normal routine, and trouble socializing. Often, caregivers experience feelings of depression and social isolation, especially if the person they are caring for becomes sicker over time. Many caregivers also neglect their own health care needs.

It is important for a spouse to recognize his or her strengths and limitations as a caregiver. Having a conversation about the level of care the person with cancer will need with the person’s health care team can help an older spouse make care decisions that are as effective and manageable as possible.

Caregiving options

In addition to reaching out to family members and friends, caregivers can consider hiring medical or non-medical professionals who can provide high quality care. Medical professionals can help provide in-home health care, while non-medical professionals, such as home care aides, can help a caregiver with tasks such as bathing, grooming, errands, and more. Care facilities, such as nursing homes or inpatient hospice facilities that provide support for people with advanced cancer, may also be options.

Many local and national organizations also provide caregivers with a wide range of caregiving assistance. For example, some organizations have trained case managers who work with the caregiver and the older adult with cancer to coordinate services such as home care, transportation, and meals. Other organizations may be able to provide financial or legal assistance, or deliver nutritious meals straight to a patient’s home.

Caregivers can get referrals to agencies and community resources from the patient’s doctor, oncology social worker, or nurse; members of local or online support groups; or state or county health agencies.

Care for the caregiver

Support networks, whether over the phone, on the Internet, or in person, are available to the caregivers of older adults with cancer. The Internet can provide virtual places for people with cancer and caregivers to seek advice, talk about their experiences, and acknowledge they are not alone in what they are going through.

More Information


Online Resources for Caregivers

Cancer in Older Adults