Caring for an older parent with cancer

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Today, my blog focuses on the emotional and practical implications of caring for an older parent with cancer. It accompanies a related blog, ‘Cancer and older people’, which looks at general facts and support for the older person.

We hold a unique relationship with our parents – melded together with childhood memories, life experience and individual circumstances.  Some families are close – others more distant.  Family dynamics can vary – for some us, there may be step parents, and other key adults who have taken on a parental role.

As adult children, most of us recognise that our parents are not invincible. Older people can often have other chronic health conditions.  However, a parent’s cancer diagnosis can somehow feel more immediate and real. The mixture of emotions experienced can feel intense. It depends, in part, on your relationship already.  You may find you feel shocked, sad, numb, angry or unmoved.  You may want to be strong for your parent and the rest of the family – whilst crumbling inside.

If you have brothers and sisters you may find you all react differently. Over the years we tend to build our own role within the family unit. Having a parent ill, can change those dynamics. You may also have children (the parent’s grandchildren), who have questions and be concerned about what is happening.  (You can find out more, in our blog ‘talking to children about cancer’).

Today’s blog includes suggestions, links and blogs to help you move forward with your parent’s support and care:-

Respecting independence

Right from the point of diagnosis, your parent may have strong views on what they want or need by way of support.  Sometimes, they don’t know what help they’ll require, and nor will you.  It can help if you are able to accompany them to appointments, and hear information first hand.  List any questions you or your parent may have, to check through if not raised by the doctor. Find out the treatment options, and respect your parent’s choice in the way they wish to move forward.

Age doesn’t define how independent a person is – and your parent may still be socially active, and be leading a normal fulfilled life.  He or she may be sad and frightened by the change in circumstances.  However, their cancer may be curative, or be stable for many years.  In this case they may value your input, but still want to do what they can themselves. In other cases, the cancer may be advanced, or the type which cannot be cured.  Your parent may then have to think of a time when they are frailer.

Communication and caring

Work out with your parent, siblings and any other family members on how you can all stay in touch. If your mother or father is going to have treatment, find out what any side effects might be, and how you and/or the family/friends can help.  It may be that you live some way away (see my blog – Being a long distance caring). In that case work out how you’ll all keep in touch.

If care support looks like it may be needed, but not something you can do on your own – don’t hesitate to contact the GP and adult social services to see what other help and support is available.

Set up ways of keeping in touch – some parents value lots of contact, whilst others might resent the increased input.  As people get older, they often prefer routine, and can find the changes incurred due to cancer and its treatments unsettling. If there is lots of organising to do, people often find that a carer’s app, such as Carers UK’s Jointly app, helpful. It can help co-ordinate appointments, visits, pharmacy pick-ups etc, as well as keep everyone informed.

The size of your family may vary. If you have siblings and other relatives who care about the person with cancer, talk to each other.  Sometimes, through geography, or practical issues, one sibling may be doing more of the caring.  You may also be supporting the person with cancer’s partner, whether that is your other parent, or a newer relationship.  The stress and anxiety around a parent’s illness can cause tension throughout the family.  Be kind to each other – work out roles and work out where each other’s strengths lie.

Role reversal

One of the strange things that can happen, is the way parent/’adult child’ relationship may change. Perhaps not at first, but particularly if your parent needs more help and care. In one way, our parents often still think of us of as ‘children’, no matter how old we are.  Yet, they may become needier as time passes, and our role may become that of the ‘parent’.

With the changing roles (be there temporary or permanent), tensions can sometimes flare.  Feeling unwell, fatigued or frustrated can change the older person’s mind set. You too may have times when you’re more snappy or irritable, and then feel guilty.

Give each other space, and time to still do things that are important to you.  You may be juggling work, home life, your own children’s needs as well as looking after your parent.  Talk openly with your parent about their and your needs – working out a way where you all can cope with the changes that are happening.

Enjoy quality time

Being able to give your parents little treats and things to look forward to, can help on the days when cancer and its treatment is wearing you all down.   They are still the person they always were, and sometimes the cancer agenda can take over, spoiling quality time together.  Maybe watching a film, going out for the day, or simply chatting over old times.  There are several organisations that provide gifts and experiences (see ‘Treats for someone on chemotherapy’).

Planning ahead

If your parent’s cancer is not responding to treatment, or they are becoming more unwell, it makes sense to have an open conversation about future planning. This may include sorting out finances, wills, and possibly, consider who might manage their affairs for them if they become too unwell to manage themselves.  Some people arrange lasting power of attorney. A lasting power of attorney (LPA) ‘is a legal document that lets you (the ‘donor’) appoint one or more people (known as ‘attorneys’) to help you make decisions or to make decisions on your behalf.’  (GOV.UK)

Your parent may also have a view on where they would like to be cared for, if they become more unwell.  Whilst these conversations can feel difficult, often the older parent has already been thinking these things through. The GP, district nurse, and hospital doctor can also help by having this sort of discussion with you all as a family.

If you or your parent would like to talk any financial concerns through – we have benefits advisors in our Maggie’s Centres Find your nearest Maggie's centre. There are added costs when anyone is ill, and you can be talked through any benefits that are available.

Time out for you

If you are caring for your parent, then take time to look after yourself too.  Regular breaks, chance to catch up with other family and friends, and finding your own support can help prevent carer ‘burnout’.  It’s tempting to think you can do everything. You can’t. Caring is tiring – physically and mentally. (check out my blog ‘what cancer means for carers’ for useful caring tips).


There is support for carers from various charities, and cancer websites.  Don’t bottle up the feelings you may be experiencing. Talk through how things are, with the rest of the family if you can. Sometimes a parent’s illness can bring you all closer – although occasionally, it brings out old family tensions.  You and/or your parent may find it really helpful to call into your local Maggie’s centre, for both practical and emotional support. 

Warm wishes


Links updated April 2020

Useful links

Benefits and carers Maggie's

Cancer and older people Maggie's 

How to help a parent who has cancer

Mum’s breast cancer diagnosis changed our whole family dynamic     Breast Cancer Now

Cancer care decisions for older adults     Cancer.Net

Make, register or end lasting power of attorney     GOV.UK

Carers UK

Carers Trust

Info for carers     VOCAL

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