Holding mom’s hand

When the voice on the other side of the telephone says: “I have such bad news; my test for cancer was positive” – the middle-aged daughter on the receiving end is immediately alarmed, shocked, and confused. This announcement does not just have a devastating effect on her mother, but will also impact on her own household, and she wonders “how I am going to get through this?”

It is a sad fact that the process of growing older increases the likelihood of developing cancer. More than three out of five (63%) cancers are diagnosed in people aged 65 and over, and more than a third (36%) are diagnosed in the elderly (aged 75 and over).

Supporters are primarily close family members and friends. However, when an elderly person becomes ill, it does affect both households. In most cases the designated adult daughter has to accommodate her mother (or father) during the crucial period of treatment, follow-up visitations to the oncologist, or calling in at her place of residence (retirement home). An additional strain is placed on the primary care giver with respect to lifestyle disruptions such as less time to socialise, extra travelling costs, less personal time, and low energy levels; while in the process of trying to balance her added obligations with the already over-burdened expectations of everyday life.

The degree of support and intensity required is of course dependent upon the particular circumstances of both households and therefore will vary from patient to patient.

A feeling of resentment can be triggered when conflict starts within the main household, which leaves the supporter (usually the daughter) feeling guilty and inadequate. This is when anxiety builds up around the issue of how to go about supporting the elderly, without getting sucked into the maelstrom and in the process becoming inefficient as a supporter.

The presence of other physical factors can have an impact on the psychological condition of the patient and, as a result, slow down the recovery process. Initially, the amount of support required will be more intense when the patient moves into the main household – disrupting the daily routine and adding psychological stress to everyone in the household.

Therefore, it is so important that the whole family should be involved in a discussion before problems arise. Plan ahead and include each family member to play a part in this journey to recovery. This will prevent accusations and conflict that will only result in resonating hurt. If the family can afford it, make use of secondary support from organisations, or private care-givers to alleviate the workload. It also gives the daughter an opportunity to share her frustrations with a stranger – which will leave her feeling more in control.

Keep in mind that the patient does not always want pity, or special treatment. They want to be accepted and validated for who they are and, under the circumstances, they want love and attention which is a major contribution to their wellness.

When you are already looking towards the sunset years of your life, the support received during the crucial period of this disease can be the deal-maker or the deal-breaker.

Written by Dr Magda Rall