Caregiving for Adults Age 65 and Older

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 10/2022

Adults who are age 65 and older are more likely to have cancer and other health conditions. For example, they are more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, and conditions that affect the heart, lungs, or kidneys. They are also more likely to have problems with memory and thinking.

These are some reasons why older adults with cancer often have different needs than younger people. This means that caregivers of older adults with cancer may need different resources to help them care for their loved ones.

This article will help you with managing caregiving responsibilities and finding additional support when caring for a loved one who is age 65 or older. Learn more about older adults and cancer.

Managing caregiver responsibilities

Caregivers for adults age 65 and over often face specific challenges. These can include:

  • Balancing caregiving with your job

  • Balancing caregiving with taking care of your immediate family

  • Living far away from the older adult who needs care

  • Having your own health conditions that you need to manage

Many older adults receive care from family members. Often, one family member is the main caregiver. However, it is important to know that caregiving responsibilities can last more than just a few months. This may mean the main caregiver may feel overwhelmed or burned out over time. This is why you may want to think about building a network of support, called a caregiving team.

Consider a caregiving team

Having friends, relatives, and/or neighbors who can help with caregiving is important, especially if the person you care for has several health concerns. For example, you might need help with:

  • Moving or lifting your loved one out of bed, into the bathroom, or elsewhere

  • Organizing medications

  • Managing bills and paperwork

  • Taking care of your own home, family, and work responsibilities

Many people may offer help when they learn about your loved one's diagnosis. You might feel like saying no because you want to do the caregiving yourself, are embarrassed by or uncomfortable with saying you need help, or for other reasons. But instead of saying no right away, ask if you can keep their contact information. You can also ask if they would like to do something specific to help, such as pick up groceries, walk a pet, or help with childcare so you can spend time doing caregiving tasks. Then, keep the information for when you need it.

Hiring someone to help may also be an option. Your loved one's cancer care team may include a social worker who can help you find home care services and other resources. Talk with the social worker or the health care team about your options. If you are concerned about the cost, ask about low-cost or free services and how much is covered by insurance.

Learn more about sharing caregiving responsibilities.

Caregiving concerns for older adults

Adults who are age 65 and older often have specific needs that caregivers should be aware of. Some common caregiving concerns for older adults include:

Managing co-existing conditions. Adults age 65 and older are more likely to have other health conditions in addition to cancer. These are called co-existing conditions, chronic conditions, or comorbidities. Examples of co-existing conditions include high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes.

It is important that your loved one continues to receive treatment for their other conditions in addition to cancer treatment. It is also important for the health care team to know about any chronic conditions your loved one has in addition to cancer. Some of the risks for how co-existing conditions can affect cancer treatment include:

  • Unwanted reactions between cancer drugs and other medications, called drug interactions

  • Cancer or cancer treatment making another health problem worse

  • Slower recovery from cancer treatment because of other health problems

As a caregiver, you can help your loved one's health care team stay updated on their diagnoses and the medications they are taking. Learn more about managing co-existing conditions during cancer treatment.

Managing multiple medications. Your loved one may need to take many medications, both for their cancer treatment and for other co-existing conditions. They may need help managing their medications, such as knowing how much to take and when, remembering if they have taken their medication, and knowing what to do if they miss a dose. If possible, fill all prescriptions at one pharmacy, so the pharmacist can help with preventing drug interactions and other concerns. Learn more tips about managing multiple medications.

Preventing falls. For people who are age 65 and older, falls are the leading cause of injuries. People with cancer are at an increased risk of falls. Sometimes, people can become overly afraid of falling, limiting their exercise and daily activity.

There are many things you can do to make your home safer for your loved one so they can continue with daily activities and exercise. These include clearing clutter, improving lighting throughout the home, installing grab bars and rails, and wearing safe footwear. Learn more about how to prevent falls.

Managing side effects of cancer treatment. Older adults can have a different reaction to cancer treatments than younger people with cancer. For example, they may need longer to recover from cancer surgery. Also, chemotherapy can affect the bone marrow, causing problems like infection, bleeding, and bruising. It is important to know what side effects of cancer and cancer treatment to watch out for. Ask your loved one's health care team what side effects to expect and how they can be prevented or relieved.

Long-distance caregiving for an older adult with cancer

Often, caregivers for older adults with cancer live some distance away. Long-distance caregiving can be challenging and stressful, but there are a lot of things you can do from a distance to help your loved one.

Long-distance caregiving tasks can include:

  • Keeping detailed information on the cancer diagnosis, including the type of cancer, the stage of the cancer, and the treatment options.

  • Telling the health care team about other health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

  • Keeping an up-to-date medication list. Learn more about managing multiple medications.

  • Updating the health care team, including your loved one's family doctor and other health care providers, on the person's health.

  • Reviewing finances and legal documents to help plan how to pay bills and who will make decisions if your loved one cannot. Learn more about tracking medical bills and health insurance claims.

  • Arranging the calendar for home health care, friends and family who offer to help, and help from community resources.

  • Using technology, like video chatting, to stay connected to your loved one. Scheduling a daily or weekly check-in call with your loved one can help them feel less alone and give them a chance to share their needs with you.

Learn more about long-distance caregiving.

Adjusting to changing roles

Caring for a parent, older relative, or spouse might feel awkward at times. For example, if your mother was the family caregiver, it can be difficult to see her needing care. She might also have difficulty letting others help her.

Here are some tips for adjusting to changing roles during caregiving:

  • Talk with each other. Ask the person you care for what they are thinking and feeling, and share your own thoughts if you feel comfortable. A social worker, counselor, or chaplain can help you talk about the situation.

  • Remember that the person who is sick has their own wants and needs. For example, you might have different ideas than they do about the best treatment. If they are able to decide with their health care team, respect their right to make their own choices.

  • Ask for help with tasks that are difficult for you. For example, if bills and insurance are overwhelming, another family member or a lawyer can help you handle them. If you have difficulty lifting the sick person, talk to their health care team about finding help.

Questions to ask the health care team

Consider asking these questions about your loved one's cancer care:

  • Who is part of my loved one's health care team?

  • Who can I reach out to when I have questions?

  • How can I reach them during regular business hours? After hours?

  • I am a long-distance caregiver. Can I attend my loved one's health care appointments virtually?

  • Is there a social worker or case manager who can help me and my loved one?

  • Are there home care services that you can recommend?

  • If my loved one has one or more co-existing conditions in addition to cancer, will their treatment affect these conditions?

  • Is my loved one at a greater risk of falls due to their cancer or cancer treatment? How can we make the home safer?

  • Does this cancer center offer any transportation services? Who can point me to local transportation resources?

  • What side effects do I need to watch out for? Are there things that can be done at home to relieve or manage them?

  • What side effects or signs should we tell you about right away?

  • How much help will my loved one need at home during recovery from treatment?

  • What other support services are available to my loved one? To caregivers?

Related Resources

Caring for a Loved One with Cancer

ASCO Answers: Caring for a Loved One With Cancer (PDF)

Staying Safe and Active During Cancer Treatment

How to Find a Caregiver When You Have Cancer

For Adults Age 65+ with Cancer

More Information

National Alliance for Caregiving

Caregiver Action Network