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Caring for an older adult with cancer can be tough

A younger woman has her arm around the shoulders of an older woman. The two women are smiling at each other as their foreheads touch.

April 22, 2019—The stress of caregiving is well known—it can take a toll on a caregiver's mental and physical health. Now a new study shows it can be particularly difficult on those who care for an older adult with cancer.

Caregivers in distress

The number of informal caregivers—such as a partner, relative or friend—who care for older adults with cancer is growing. Most older people with cancer live at home. That means caregivers may help with cancer treatment, symptom management and daily tasks.

For the study, researchers collected health information on people who were caregivers of older adults with advanced cancer. They found that the caregivers were particularly vulnerable to a variety of mental and physical problems:

  • Almost 40 percent of the caregivers had their own chronic illnesses.
  • Nearly half (43.5 percent) reported moderate to high distress. In fact, the poorer the health of the patient with cancer, the higher the level of distress for the caregiver.
  • Many of the caregivers reported experiencing depression (19 percent) and anxiety (24 percent).

Who were the caregivers?

Although the average caregiver in the study was 66 years old, almost half were 70 or older. Most were women, and about two-thirds were the partner of the cancer patient.

The study did find that older caregivers had less anxiety and depression. However, they had worse physical health. Female caregivers reported being less distressed than their male counterparts, and those with incomes of more than $50,000 a year had better physical and mental health.

This is the first large study to look at the effect that caring for older adults with cancer has on a caregiver's health. It was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Take care of yourself

If you are a caregiver to someone with cancer—or any other health problem—it's important to stay on top of your own health and to take steps to relieve your stress. Talk to your healthcare provider about the challenges you face. And check out this story for ideas on finding support and relief.

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