Taking Care of Yourself At Home

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 02/2022

A cancer diagnosis and treatment can present new challenges if you live alone. Everyone needs help when they have cancer. That's why planning ahead and thinking through your at-home care during cancer treatment and recovery is important. This is especially true for adults who are older than 65 who have additional needs.

Your health care team can help you to plan:

  • How to watch and care for common treatment side effects, including when to call your health care providers

  • How to make sure you are getting needed nutrition and hydration

  • How to get to and from medical appointments safely

These plans may involve hiring help at home or involving long-distance caregivers.

When to call your health care provider

Cancer and its treatment often cause side effects, including some that require immediate medical attention. Examples include infection and blood clots and can also include conditions that come on more gradually like dehydration or depression.

It may be difficult to know when to call your health care provider, especially if you live by yourself. At your appointments with your primary care provider, oncologist, or other care provider, tell that person that you live alone and come up with a plan together.

Consider asking your health care provider these questions:

  • What are possible symptoms or side effects of my cancer and its treatment?

  • Which side effects are considered an emergency? Where should I go if I'm experiencing an urgent problem?

  • When should I contact my health care provider right away during treatment?

  • What phone number should I call during an emergency, including during off-hours like weekends or holidays?

  • When can I expect a return call from my health care team, or the after-hours on call provider? What should I do if I don't hear back?

If you have someone who is coming into your home to help, make sure they are familiar with these instructions. Or if you have long-distance caregivers, share these instructions and phone numbers with them in advance.

Consider how technology may be able to help at home. For instance, a "smart speaker" can help aging people with cancer who live alone. For example, if you fall, you can ask your home's smart speaker to call 911 even if you are injured and unable to reach your phone. Also, there are medical alert devices that are worn as a necklace that can call local emergency services by pressing a button. Among people who are aged 65 and older, falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries, and adults with cancer are at a higher risk.

How to meet your nutrition and hydration needs

People with cancer need to eat healthy, nutritious foods and maintain a healthy weight. This can be difficult if side effects curb your appetite, or you do not have the energy to make your own foods. It is also important to keep up your hydration by drinking enough water and other liquids.

A qualified professional, such as a registered dietitian (RD) or registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), can guide you on nutrition and hydration during your cancer diagnosis and treatment. Ask your health care team to help you find one of these professionals. You can also use the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' website to find a dietitian. Tell that professional that you live alone. You may need extra help with meals on treatment days or when recovering from surgery.

There are tips to make grocery shopping easier when your energy is low. Food delivery services in urban areas are helpful for older adults to receive groceries and takeout meals. Those living in rural areas or on a tight budget may not have equitable access to these services. Meals on Wheels is a nationwide program that reaches seniors alone with nutritious meals. Mom's Meals offers cancer-support meals to people with Medicaid, Medicare Advantage Plans, and other plans.

Getting to and from appointments safely

Keeping your cancer treatment and follow-up appointments is extremely important for your health. However, it is also important to get there safely, which may mean not driving yourself due to the stress and side effects that cancer brings. And, the type of treatment you are receiving means you will not be able to drive yourself home.

Ask family or friends to drive you to and from appointments. You can also talk with an oncology social worker or cancer center staff about your needs if you think you will have trouble making it to appointments. They will know of local resources that may be able to help you.

In the United States, there are several programs you may be able to use to help you get to your appointments. The American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery program provides transportation for patients.

Some county and city governments offer non-emergency medical transportation for seniors and disabled people. Contact your local public transportation agency for more information. Some states or insurance plans also offer transportation to appointments through LogistiCare.

Ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft are also an option. Both companies offers services specific to medical appointments, such as Lyft Pass for HealthCare and Uber Health.

Getting extra help at home

People who are 65 and older and who live alone may need extra help recovering from cancer treatments or navigating their cancer care. You may choose to hire a professional to help care for you or your loved one at home. You can hire a registered nurse, home health aide, personal care aide or companion to come to your home and help with various health and household tasks.

These professionals have different levels of training, education, and certification. Research your options beforehand with other caregivers or family members. You can hire home services from an agency or privately. Coverage can vary depending on your insurance.

How can long-distance caregivers get involved?

If you are a senior living alone without adult children or other caregivers nearby, you may want to ask for help from loved ones who live far away. Long-distance caregivers can provide vital support.

Even if they do not live nearby, long-distance caregivers can help make appointments, organize paperwork, pay bills, and compile important information, like phone numbers. Long-distance caregivers can also hire home help services. Long-distance caregivers can offer important social and emotional support for people with cancer.

Technology, like video chatting, can help you stay connected if travel is not possible. Scheduling a daily or weekly check-in call with long-distance caregivers can help you feel less alone and give you a chance to share health needs with your loved ones.

Questions to ask the health care team

Consider asking your health care team the following:

  • Who can I talk with to make a plan for my care at home since I live by myself?

  • How much help do you think I will need at home during my recovery?

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

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

  • Why is it important to prevent falls at home?

  • Could side effects from cancer or its treatment affect my ability to drive safely?

  • How often will I need to come into the doctor's office or medical center for treatment? How long will each appointment take?

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

  • What are some ways I can take care of myself while at home?

  • Who can I talk with about my nutrition and hydration needs?

  • Are there other cancer rehabilitation services that can help me?

Related Resources

How to Stay Safe and Independent During Cancer Treatment

Caregiving for Older Adults

Getting Fit for Cancer Treatment: Why It Matters

7 Tips for Meal Planning Mastery

More Information

National Institute on Aging: Getting Started with Long-Distance Caregiving

AARP: Getting the Most Out of Your Smart Speaker