Help At Your Fingertips

How caregivers can keep cancer patients' spirits up

When cancer hits, it can catch the person's family by surprise too.

Often, caregivers do not have time to prepare themselves for their new role, said senior staff nurse Tay Li Hui, from the division of nursing oncology at the National University Cancer Institute, Singapore.

"Caregivers are confronted with not only the difficult emotions of their loved ones, but also their own," she said, adding that they also have to take on new responsibilities, which can be draining.

Ms Tay outlines common scenarios that caregivers of cancer patients may face, how to manage them and tips to improve their mood.

WHEN THE PATIENT DOES NOT EAT ENOUGH

Don't impose unnecessary food restrictions based on hearsay and limit his food choices. Attend to his cravings promptly before he loses appetite. Try a variety of food, including milk and juice, or supplements. Replace plain water with sugared beverages or soup, so that the person gets enough calories.

COPING WITH LOW IMMUNITY

Keep your loved one away from crowded, enclosed spaces or sick people, and maintain his personal hygiene. Ensure that the patient adheres to a balanced diet . Accompany him on a 30-minute daily walk around the neighbourhood for fresh air and exercise.

THE PATIENT OFTEN FEELS TIRED

Ensure that he gets ample rest, but do not let him rest in bed the entire day. Instead, encourage him to get out of bed by doing light activities - for example, catching a movie.

Include short periods for rest when carrying out activities during the day. Keep his daytime naps to less than 20 minutes to prevent sleep disruptions at night.

WHEN YOUR LOVED ONE APPEARS DEPRESSED

Avoid making everything about cancer and maintain some normalcy in your conversations.

Encourage the person to share his worries. You can also distract him from excessive worrying by getting him to do activities like art and crafts and puzzles.

A spot of gardening or a trip to the beach can cheer the person up too.

But if his low mood persists or gets worse, seek help from a doctor.

Tips to lift their spirits

  • Try to find out what motivates the cancer patient - it can be a person, faith or unfinished business. Help him set achievable goals and celebrate small victories or achievements with them.
  • Empower him with a sense of purpose in everyday life. It can be as simple as drawing up the grocery list together, or planning a family outing.
  • Give the cancer patient some space. Don't try to control everything - instead, check with him how he would like to be supported instead of "babying" him in every way.

Coping with stress

Caregivers may encounter stress and cope with it unhealthily, such as by smoking or overeating.

Other poor coping methods include denial, venting one's frustrations and social isolation.

One may also feel resentful or irritated with the cancer patient, and harbour thoughts of harming himself or the loved one. In such cases, seek help early, said Ms Tay.

In addition, make sure to set aside personal time every day to do something enjoyable. Or, talk to someone about your troubles or join a caregiver support group to learn from others, she said.

Other ways of relieving stress include making a list of issues that bother you.

One can also try practising relaxation techniques, such as deep- breathing exercises, or take part in relaxing activities like yoga.

"As caregivers, remember to give yourself credit for your efforts in caring for your loved ones," said Ms Tay.

"Acknowledge your limitations and learn to set realistic expectations. Most importantly, don't be afraid to ask for help."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2015, with the headline 'How caregivers can keep cancer patients' spirits up HelpAtYourFingertips'. Print Edition | Subscribe