When it comes to encouraging aging parents to live a healthy lifestyle aimed at cancer prevention, experts at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center agree that it’s never too late. A majority of the sandwich generation—adults who juggle their own family, career and health stresses—find it difficult to make a positive impact on their parents’ health. However, helping older parents stay cancer-free can be achieved with simple adjustments to their normal routine.
About 77 percent of people diagnosed with cancer are age 55 or older, according to the American Cancer Society. You can help reduce your parents’ risk of cancer and improve their quality of life by encouraging lifestyle changes that have a huge impact on their health.
MD Anderson experts note that common scenarios seniors face like living alone and leading sedentary lives can lead to unhealthy behaviors that have a negative impact on their ability to ward off diseases such as cancer. Here are the healthy lifestyle changes most important to make.
1. Encourage seniors to exercise. Daily exercise plays a major role in preserving a person’s health. Here’s how you can get your parents moving:
- Educate parents about the benefits of exercise for seniors. Increasing physical activity can lower a person’s chances for many cancers, including breast, endometrial, prostate, colorectal and lung cancers. The American Institute for Cancer Research suggests getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as walking, every day.
- Encourage parents to do activities they enjoy and that will keep them active. Gardening, golfing, playing tennis and swimming are all great choices. Encourage your parents to talk to their doctor about what types of activity they should do.
- Exercise with them. Suggest going for a brisk walk together during your next visit. This is a great way to jumpstart increased activity and exercise for seniors.
- Find free, local fitness programs for seniors. Look online for programs that offer free gym memberships to seniors who want to become more active, but may have a limited income.
2. Encourage healthy food choices. Many seniors, especially those living alone, don’t cook much because they think it’s too much effort to make a meal for one or two people. This may keep your parents from getting the nutrients they need to maintain a healthy body and lower their risk of lung, mouth, esophageal, stomach and colon cancers.
Here are some tips to make sure your parents are eating nutritious meals daily:
- Learn about healthy diets for those older than age 50. Share information on how many calories they should be getting daily and the types of foods they should be eating.
- Share the leftovers. Make enough healthy food at home so that you have extra to package and freeze. When you visit your parent, take those leftovers with you.
- Contact a “Meals on Wheels” program. If your parent is homebound or disabled, this national program provides nutritious meals for a small fee.
3. Discourage smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. Quitting smoking is the most important thing anyone can do to improve their health. It’s never too late to quit! It reduces the risks for cancer and other diseases, such as heart and lung disease. And avoiding secondhand smoke can greatly improve one’s health. If your parent smokes, encourage him or her to get help by calling one of these free smoking quit lines:
- American Cancer Society: 1-800-QUIT-NOW
- National Cancer Institute: 1-877-44U-QUIT
4. Encourage parents to get involved in the community. Almost 10 million Americans over age 65 live alone, says the US Census Bureau. For many, living alone can lead to loneliness and depression, which has a negative impact on a person’s overall health, says the World Health Organization (WHO). Becoming a volunteer at a local community organization keeps seniors active, engaged, sociable and gives them a chance to help others. Talk with your parents about possible volunteer opportunities in their area. AARP provides a list of volunteer activities where seniors can work closely with community partners.
5. Reduce financial stress. Many seniors experience financial stress due to money management issues. Psychological stress can affect the immune system, the body’s defense against infection and disease including cancer. Here’s how you can help your parents cope with financial stress:
- Offer advice. Work with your parents to set a budget and payment system for bills. Encourage them to work with their bank to set up automatic bill payment to relieve some of the financial responsibility.
- Look into the “representative payee” alternative. If your parent receives income from Social Security, he or she can ask the Social Security Administration to appoint a representative payee to receive the monthly checks and use the money to pay for their living expenses.
6. Encourage regular check-ups and screening exams. Cancer screening exams are medical tests done when you’re healthy and you don’t have any signs of illness. They help find cancer at its earliest stage, when the chances for curing the disease are greatest. Learn what screening exams your parents should be getting and make sure they schedule their appointments on time.
Taking an active role in keeping your parents healthy will improve both their wellbeing and quality of life.
Adelina Espat is the Senior Communications Specialist at MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston.