Finding out a loved one has a terminal illness is one of the worst possibilities of aging. The proverbial “Golden Years” turn into a nightmare. Cancer, exacerbation of cardiovascular diseases, or the onset of organ failure make up a fraction of the terminal illnesses affecting seniors. Unfortunately, there is no one way to navigate the treacherous waves of emotions that accompany the diagnosis of a terminal illness.
As a program director or other senior care professional, you can help empower the families and friends of those suffering from terminal illnesses by ensuring your staff members understand the nature of this event. In other words, senior care training programs must evolve to include a module on helping family members cope and maintain their emotional stability throughout a loved one’s terminal illness.
Prevalence of Terminal Illness Among the Elderly
Diverging from popular opinion, terminal illnesses do not affect most seniors. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 21.7 percent of seniors over age 65 have a fair or poor state of health, reflecting a greater risk of being diagnosed with a terminal illness. In addition, both men and women have a remaining life expectancy of 19.3 years upon reaching age 65.
Lifestyle is another aspect of risk for terminal illnesses. For example, the following prevalence rates of obesity among seniors may indicate future risk:
- Up to 36.2 percent of men between ages 65 and 74 are obese.
- Obesity rates among men over 75 decline to 26.8 percent.
- Women between ages 65 and 74 have a 3.8 percent higher rate of obesity than men.
- Women over age 75 have a 30.5 percent obesity rate.
Sadly, the decreased risk of obesity may be due to increased mortality rates as obese seniors age. In fact, the leading causes of death among all age groups of seniors include heart disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory disease. Fortunately, the mortality rates for each terminal illness appear to have improved in recent years, reports the National Cancer Institute (NCI). However, improvements will come too late for an estimated 595,690 people, including seniors, in 2016 alone. Thus, knowing how to cope will continue to be a cornerstone of managing terminal illnesses.
Staying Strong Through a Loved One’s Terminal Illness
Few situations can compare to the immense grief, depression, anguish, anger, and fear that accompany an elderly loved one’s terminal diagnosis. While family members will always be hopeful from the start, you must be ready to help them through the process with these steps.
1. Acknowledge the Impact of the Terminal Illness
Denial is one of the antagonists that will eat away at the mind when a loved one is suffering. Immediate senior caregivers, such as adult children or other family members, may put their personal health aside in favor of caring for their ailing loved ones, explains NCI. In fact, many people with cancer may prefer family members exclusively as caregivers. Consequently, senior caregivers must acknowledge that a loved one’s diagnosis may affect their psychological and physical health too.
2. Prepare for Changes in the Mood and Physical Health
In 2014, I watched as my father sat stoically when given his cancer diagnosis at age 57. I had never seen him cry, but within weeks, before starting chemo, I watched him break down in the kitchen when telling a neighbor.
When an older family member receives the diagnosis of a terminal illness, they may exhibit many emotions, but some emotions can stay hidden for weeks, asserts the American Cancer Society. Family members must prepare to see emotions come out at the most unexpected times. Moreover, they must understand physical strength may be lacking.
I remember walking into the kitchen one day and my father said, “Would you make me a smoothie? I can’t seem to push the buttons, and it is the only thing I have been wanting today.” My father was not alone; my brother was there. However, he did not want to ask anyone for help. I did not expect the change in physical endurance to become so evident this quickly.
You must encourage senior caregivers to be proactive in offering assistance. It may not always be obvious what an older loved one wants because of the emotional turmoil inside.
3. Strengthen the Support System
Enduring the trials of a terminal illness requires a strong system. Family caregivers must be willing to work together and with outside caregivers, such as agency employees, to help lessen the physical demand of caring for a loved one. All those involved in the care of a senior, including friends, must communicate fully and clearly about what is happening. The simple act of speaking with others will help to build emotional strength and stability.
Sometimes, the support system will need augmentation beyond the immediate family and friends. For example, a licensed counselor may help family members understand and manage their emotions during this time. Similarly, members of the clergy or coworkers can help provide emotional support. Additionally, joining a support group, which is available online, in person, and by phone, may be another viable option for strengthening support systems.
4. Develop Coping Strategies
Coping strategies can vary and depend on the preferences of each person. For senior caregivers, coping strategies may include taking turns caring for a loved one, engaging in recreational exercise or sports, visiting with friends and family members, or making arts and crafts. Sticking to a personal routine, such as grocery shopping, cleaning, cooking, or going to work, can also be an effective coping strategy. The coping strategy can literally be anything that does not have the potential to cause physical or mental health problems.
5. Avoid the Temptation to Turn to Drugs or Alcohol
There will be times when emotions are overwhelming and family members may feel like giving up. Unfortunately, this may easily turn into drug or alcohol abuse, which will only cause pain and suffering to worsen as the substances wear off.
If emotional instability becomes too severe, psychotherapy or prescription medications may help alleviate symptoms. For example, antidepressants may help those suffering from severe depression following the diagnosis of a loved one, or medications may be used to manage anxiety.
Regardless of how many times you have helped family members through the diagnosis of a terminal illness of a loved one, no situation is identical. The emotions that accompany a loved one’s terminal diagnosis can reflect the best and worst of humanity simultaneously.
It is easy to leave family members to deal with their emotions on their own, and while you may hope for the best, a terminal illness, by its namesake, will only have one outcome – death. You must help bridge the division between family members and your organization by including this information in your senior care training programs. Ultimately, your staff will be present during the most emotional, trying times families will experience, and everyone in your organization must be ready to help them stay strong.