Caring for elderly relatives is rarely an easy, straightforward job. One of the most difficult day-to-day decisions that many of us face is balancing the risk of loneliness and mental health issues amongst our older relatives with our own personal commitments.
Remaining positive while making sure relatives are well cared for and ticking off your day-to-day tasks can feel overwhelming. And, of course, worrying about the health and wellbeing of your loved ones can be a challenge in itself.
So, if you’re currently caring for elderly relatives, here are a few ideas to help look after them – and you – as best as possible.
1. Make a plan
One of the most important things you can do when looking after older relatives is to make a plan to address what will happen if you, or they, should become unwell.
If you’re the main carer and something crops up last minute, the last thing you want is to be worrying about whether your relative has enough food in the house, or whether there’s anyone available to check in on them.
If possible, try to involve your relative in discussions about a plan and take their preferences into account. Many elderly people are fearful of losing their independence, so talking about things together can help with this by making them feel involved and prepared.
Some of the points your plan should address are…
Emergency contacts. If you’re the main caregiver, figure out who’ll be able to support your relative if you can’t.
If you don’t have other family members you can rely on, consider reaching out to friends and neighbours. When called upon, people are generally more than happy to help others in need.
- Medication. One of the best things you can do to keep your relative healthy is to make sure that they’re taking any medication on time and at the correct dosage. It might be helpful to stock up on their required medicine to cover all bases.
Food and essentials. When caring for an elderly relative, it can be helpful to take extra precautions and have a backlog of household essentials. Try to stock up on at least two weeks’ worth of food and other household essentials, including pet supplies, if needed.
It’s also a good idea to find out which delivery services are available in your relative’s area. This way, you know that whatever the situation, they’ll have enough food and essentials to tide them over.
- Getting paperwork sorted. While it’s not nice to think about worst-case scenarios, it’s important to be prepared for every eventuality.
Talking about death or illness is never easy, but knowing that their affairs and wishes will be managed in the way they want, should something happen, can be of great comfort in the long run.
From your perspective, it’ll allow you to get everything in place now, as having to go through the paperwork when and if the worst happens can only add to pressure an already difficult time.
They can make a note of all the information you might need using our What to do when I die organiser, which is free to download.
2. Create a support network
It’s important that relatives feel supported and connected – but equally important that the responsibility doesn’t lie solely with you. If other family members help out with care, see if you can draw up a rota ensuring someone checks in with your relative each day.
This doesn’t always have to be a physical visit; phone calls go a long way too. You could ask younger family members to help by scheduling regular calls or chats that your loved one can look forward to.
If you hold family events (either online or in-person), is this something your relative can be part of? Is there someone who could pick them up and drop them home again? Or, could you help them get signed up with a video chatting service like Zoom? If they’re comfortable on a computer, then they might find our guide on getting started with video conferencing useful.
Even just calling up your loved one and keeping them on speakerphone can help them to feel included and connected. Encouraging friends to write letters or send cards to boost your relative’s spirits is another gesture that goes a long way. And if friends and family live nearby, perhaps they could also pop in for a cup of tea every now and then too.
It’s worth keeping in mind that many of those in their 80s or 90s may not be connected to the online world, so it could be helpful to take some time to help your relative become more confident using smartphones, tablets, or the internet.
Not only does this mean your family member can call or video chat whenever they like, but it also allows them to join online support communities like Mind’s Side by Side, where people can share stories, listen and connect.
It’s also worthwhile giving your relative a list of phone numbers they can call if they’re struggling. Age UK, Independent Age, and Mind all have helplines, and Age UK has an excellent befriending service that’ll match your relative with a compatible volunteer to enjoy friendly phone chats with.
Our article Breaking the taboo on loneliness: What can we do to support each other? has more tips on how to help people who are lonely.
3. Consider getting external help
If you’re worried that your relative needs more support than you’re currently able to give, it might be worth getting some form of professional care – even if it’s just for an hour a few times a week.
Depending on individual financial circumstances, care can be costly. But, if your relative can afford this, it can be hugely beneficial for their health and wellbeing, and your own peace of mind.
Finding funding for care isn’t always easy, so if you’d like further support and information, head over to the paying for care section of our website, or have a read of our article; 7 questions to ask if you’re considering live-in care for a relative.
4. Help your relative stay occupied and maintain a sense of purpose
Keeping busy with hobbies is important for mental health – whether that’s going on a walk, watching TV, cooking, reading, or knitting.
For some older individuals, small tasks like visiting the supermarket or running locals errands can help to give them a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Therefore, it can help to think about little ‘tasks’ you can set for your relative so their days feel meaningful.
This doesn’t just reduce negative feelings like loneliness or depression, but also helps limit stress levels. Plus, studies show that older adults who feel purposeful are less likely to develop diseases like dementia or Alzheimer’s.
There are plenty of small projects that your relative might enjoy working on. For example, you could talk with your loved one about planning family gatherings, ask them to organise old photos, or set aside special memorabilia to share when everyone’s reunited.
They even could note down happy stories and memories you can all reminisce about, make a list of their favourite films they’d like to watch with family, or write down some family recipes to pass down.
If your relative enjoys writing – or simply reminiscing – you could encourage them to put pen to paper and try writing a memoir. Try to convey the importance of this action and let your loved one know how much your family will treasure their memories.
Other activities like gardening are also known to have powerful psychological benefits and can significantly reduce depression. So if your relative enjoys being outside, and is capable of doing so, you could encourage them to work in their garden if they have one.
If your relative has the means, they might like to consider volunteering online. There are dozens of virtual volunteering opportunities that you can do from the comfort of your home. For example, if your loved one is familiar with Skype, then they could become a ‘Granny Cloud’ volunteer. This involves Skyping into remote locations to chat with, listen to, and encourage underprivileged children.
Alternatively, if your relative is interested in nature and wildlife, you could ask them to record any birds they see, then help them log the entries onto the eBird website. eBird informs global bird research and assists with conservation decisions. This would be an easy way for them to feel like they’re making a significant difference from their back garden…or even from just looking out the window.
For further ideas, you might like to have a read of our article; 9 fun activities to do with the person you care for. The arts and crafts section of Rest Less Events is also full of fun hobbies to get involved with, including knitting, crochet, and watercolour painting.
5. Help your relative stay active
Physical exercise is always important, but it becomes especially valuable as we get older.
Studies show that older adults who exercise tend to have improved digestion, better bone density and blood pressure, and a stronger immune system. And luckily, there are plenty of ways to exercise outside or at home.
If your loved one has limited mobility, the NHS advice is to do some chair exercises. These types of exercises are gentle and easy to follow, and can help improve mobility and prevent falls. Rest Less Events hosts frequent seated Pilates classes, for example. Even activities like light gardening can have unexpected health benefits – plus, it provides fresh air and sunshine.
There are lots of low-impact indoor exercises suitable for older adults, including yoga and Tai Chi. Both these exercises have powerful psychological benefits too. For example, Tai Chi encourages you to practise mindfulness and be more aware of your own body and the world around you. And yoga can improve mood and enhance memory.
Alternatively, you could encourage your relative to try the popular ‘workouts for seniors’ exercises from personal trainer Joe Wicks, which can be performed as gently as you like. Just putting the radio on and having a dance counts as exercise – and can be a real mood-booster too!
If your relative seems reluctant about exercising at home, there are plenty of ways to gently exercise outside too. You’ll find plenty of ideas in the fitness and exercise section of our website.
6. Care for yourself
No matter how capable and resilient you are, caring for older relatives can be upsetting, stressful, and frustrating at times. And for this reason, prioritising your own health and wellbeing is key.
No matter how busy you are, it’s important to set aside time for yourself each day to do something you enjoy. It doesn’t matter what the activity is or how long you do it for – for example, you could take yourself for an evening stroll, enjoy a hot bath, or listen to some music. But it’s essential that you prioritise your own needs, not just those of your loved ones.
Some helpful ways of dealing with stress are…
- Mindfulness. It’s easy to allow our anxieties to run away with us – and if you’re a caregiver, you might be especially prone to worrying or rushing around.
This can seriously increase stress levels and affect sleep, so it can be helpful to alleviate anxiety by focusing on the present moment. You can read more about this in our introductory guide to mindfulness. For other useful tips, check out our article; 10 activities that help you stay in the present moment.
- Talk about how you feel. Feelings of grief, anger, frustration, and guilt are normal for caregivers to experience, but being able to talk about these emotions can help lessen the load.
However, because these feelings are often deeply personal and relate to loved ones, you may not want to share them with friends or family.
If this is the case, talking to other caregivers in similar positions can be helpful. Using online forums is a good way to share, vent, and offer support to other carers (because helping others can raise your spirits too), so why not check out sites like AgingCare Caregiver?
- Challenge negative thoughts. When you’re stressed, tired, or dealing with the fluctuating emotions involved in caregiving, it’s common to have negative thoughts now and then. These thoughts can often become distorted, and based on emotions rather than logic.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapy that helps people identify and challenge negative thoughts before they affect the way we think, feel, and act. It’s proven to be helpful in treating anxiety and depression.
You can find out more in our article; An introduction to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It’s also worth bearing in mind that caregivers are eligible for free CBT over the phone. You can contact your GP if you’d like to be referred.
- Keep busy and active. It’s easy to just want to curl up on the sofa when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed – but staying active is as helpful for our minds as it is for our bodies.
The feel-good endorphins released during exercise can boost our mood and encourage feelings of relaxation, which go a long way in helping us feel good about ourselves.
If you’re not an especially active person, remember that small things can make a big difference. If you don’t enjoy running, you could try going for a brisk walk to your local park – and why not listen to a walking meditation as you go, for maximum benefit?
If you’d like to do something more low-impact, you might want to consider getting into activities like cycling or swimming. It doesn’t matter how you choose to stay active, but getting some fresh air and head space when you’re caring for someone else can make all the difference.
Many older adults struggle with feelings of loneliness, so checking in on vulnerable loved ones is important.
As a carer, it’s normal to feel like you should be doing more, but it’s important to take care of yourself too. By checking in on your loved ones and allowing them to feel connected, you’re helping prevent feelings like loneliness and vulnerability.
And above all, one of the most effective ways you can help your loved one is to prioritise your own health and wellbeing.
For more guidance and support, head over to the care section of our website.