Older People Living with Cancer

Peer advocates supporting older people affected by cancer

‘I don’t know where to start’

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Kathleen Gillett of Dorset Macmillan Advocacy looks at the plight of older carers:

We are currently supporting a lady in her late 70s who has a long term health condition and was until only a few weeks ago cared for by her husband.  A sudden deterioration in his health owing to a progression in his cancer has turned the situation upside down and she is now his carer.  With no family in the local area she must alone cope with taking care of things at home that were formerly his domain and at the same time communicating with many professionals with unfamiliar job titles.  No wonder she felt anxious and said ‘I don’t know where to start.’

There have been many reports about the needs of carers over the years.  The importance of supporting carers is widely recognised but until now there has not been a lot of detail about older carers.  Carers Trust have published Caring About Older Carers: Providing Support for People Caring Later in Life which is a toolkit aimed at commissioners of health and social care in England to highlight the needs of carers over the age of 60.

The statistics are compelling. The number of older carers is increasing at a greater rate than for carers as a whole.  Three in five of carers aged over 85 are male and most carers over 80 spend more than 50 hours a week caring.  Carer’s health deteriorates incrementally with increased hours of caring.  Older carers are more likely to have age related illness themselves – two thirds of older carers have long term health problems. One third of older carers have cancelled treatment they needed due to their caring responsibilities.

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Carers of all ages deserve recognition and support. Older carers need the support perhaps more than anyone.  From a financial perspective research has shown that carer breakdown is often a factor in emergency hospital admissions and admission to residential care.

The toolkit chapters identify areas of need for older carers including health and wellbeing; financial concerns; social isolation; concerns for the future; information and advice; assessment, support planning and involvement and finally bereavement and life after caring. Examples of tried and tested practice are given with each of the chapters and particular mention is made of the role of advocacy services in representing and supporting carers with assessment, support planning and involvement.

We were able support the lady at an appointment with the hospital’s palliative care coordinator. Then we accompanied her to view a nursing home where her husband could be admitted to receive the palliative care he needs. She was able to make preparations and the following week her husband’s planned discharge from hospital took place.  The nursing home location is easier for visits and there are no restrictions on visiting hours and the possibility of overnight stays for family members.

Older carers struggle to remember their own needs and to look after themselves.  The support and encouragement that peer volunteer advocates can bring to older carers affected by cancer can make a huge difference to them.

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