The older adult patient has a rich history and a wealth of knowledge and experience, as well as numerous strengths that can assist them in coping with a cancer diagnosis. As oncology health professionals, we must communicate respect, acceptance, and self-determination. An important aspect of care is to work with older adults to assess strengths and provide feedback regarding self-care. Through assessment, the older adult patient’s skill areas, learning style, and individual needs can be evaluated. The patient’s knowledge and skill set can be a huge strength in helping them as they navigate diagnosis and treatment.

Today, older adults find themselves in an increasingly complex consumer-centric medical system, where they are expected to take an active role in managing their care and may be ill-equipped to do so. Many caregivers are also older adults and are navigating not only their loved one’s care, but also their own age-related health issues. Establishing an environment that is patient-centered and supportive is integral in laying the groundwork for effective care

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An open, direct conversation with the older adult patient about patient-centered care and how health care has evolved is vital. Access to medical information through technology has expanded, providing patients with myriad resources that, while helpful, may be confusing.2 Overwhelmed, they may refrain from asking key questions about their care or feel unsure about where to access important (and accurate) health information. 

It is important to encourage and assist older adult patients to become self-advocates in this capacity. Clear communication, health literacy, and plain language can greatly improve adherence to treatment and health outcomes. Plain language is communication that patients can understand the first time they read or hear it. Key elements of plain language include organizing information so that the most important points come first, breaking complex information into understandable chunks, using simple language, and defining technical terms.3 Assessing the patient and utilizing effective communication tools can make a huge difference in care.

An essential part of healthy aging is fostering independence. Aging brings many changes that can include loss of independence due to physical, cognitive, and social changes. These changes can also be brought on by a cancer diagnosis.  Oncology health professionals can play a vital role by working with patients’ and caregivers’ strengths, providing them with clear health information and encouraging them to participate in their care.

Sarah Kelly is coordinator for Older Adult Services at CancerCare.  


1. Levit LA, Balogh EP, Nass SJ, Ganz PA, eds. Delivering High-Quality Cancer Care: Charting a New Course for a System in Crisis. Washington DC: The National Academies Press; 2013. Accessed July 9, 2014.

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Improving Health Literacy of Older Adults. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services; 2009. Accessed July 9, 2014.

3. American Psychological Association. What Practitioners Should Know About Working With Older Adults. Washington DC: American Psychological Association; 1998. Accessed July 9, 2014.