If you look after a relative, partner, or friend who is either disabled or unwell as a result of physical or mental illness, then you are by definition a carer. Some people become carers overnight, while others are eased in gradually. But whatever your circumstances, caring for another person is a huge responsibility. Although rewarding, it can also be physically and emotionally taxing if not properly balanced with the rest of your life.
With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of things that can help you look after yourself while caring for a relative.
1. Try to stay organised
Caring comes with a great deal of responsibility. Keeping on top of medication, attending hospital visits, and cooking meals – all while trying to live your own life – can easily feel overwhelming, especially if you’re new to the job. Therefore, it can help to plan and organise your care duties in advance.
Studies have shown that people perform better when they write down what tasks they need to complete. This can also help you to feel more in control, less stressed, and make a huge difference to your mindset, productivity, and overall well being.
There are plenty of planning tools available on Amazon to help with organisation. From simple to-do checklists, through to daily and weekly planners split into different sections.
2. Support your loved one’s independence
It can be difficult for people to accept that they need care. They might be fearful of losing their independence, especially if they’ve never needed help previously. To make it a smoother transition, try to maintain their sense of freedom wherever possible and allow them to feel in control of their care.
Often, this is best done by having an open conversation to find out what support they need from you, and whether there are times that they can cope by themselves. You may also find that sometimes this means taking a step back and supporting their decisions, even when it’s not what you would do yourself.
In some cases, home improvements and assistive technology can also help people maintain their independence. Physical modifications such as stairlifts and grab bars, and computer software such as voice recognition and screen readers can make a huge difference.
If you believe you could benefit from home adaptations or assistive technology, then it’s worth contacting the social services department of your local council and requesting a free home assessment. For more information about assistive equipment and the care assessment process, have a read of our article How to get care support at home and work.
Supporting your loved one’s independence will look different in every situation; there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. But it can be a great way to help you to find a healthy balance in your relationship and give you both a little more time to yourselves. For more information and tips on how to balance care and independence, have a read of the Home Care Assistance website.
3. Try to find positives
Becoming someone’s carer can easily change the dynamic of your relationship. Sometimes you might feel happy and connected with them, while other times you may feel irritated or angry. It’s completely normal for your emotions to be a bit up and down, especially when you’re in new or challenging situations.
To help avoid unnecessary tension, it can be useful to talk openly and honestly with whoever you’re caring for so that you can identify ways to cope together. For example, you could discuss what each of you are finding tricky and what things you could do to strengthen your relationship. You might also like to brainstorm activities or day trips that you could enjoy together alongside daily responsibilities as this can bring a more relaxed feel to the situation.
Lastly, it’s important to consider yourself as their friend, partner, or family first. Touching base with your relationship outside of care can be a great way to help to stimulate open and honest communication.
4. Be realistic about what you can give
When we take too much on all at once, it can leave us feeling overwhelmed. Therefore, where possible, it can be useful to seriously consider what you can and can’t do before taking on care duties. Gauging an idea of what your caring role will look like can also help you to feel more in control and better able to cope.
Remember, it’s important to take into account any responsibilities and commitments outside of care, as well as allowing yourself time to take ample breaks too. You could list out all the care needs of the person you’re looking after, and then make a separate list of everything else you want and need to make time for too. This can help to give you a clearer idea of what you can realistically achieve without risking burnout.
5. Share how you’re feeling with people you trust
Caring for a relative is difficult enough, but it doesn’t help either that we’re a nation of proven worriers. This study by Age UK revealed that over half of the UK population (53%) shoulder several worries every day and a fifth of adults constantly have something playing on their mind.
But, as the saying goes: a problem shared is a problem halved. And it’s true – when we share our worries with others, we often feel a sense of relief, as though a weight has been lifted off of our shoulders.
Care can be a heavy topic and difficult to talk about, especially if it’s uncharted territory. It’s natural for carers to feel a bit lost, overwhelmed, and unable to cope from time-to-time. People can sometimes also feel guilty for wanting to share their struggles, especially when the person they care for is a relative.
However, confiding in a trusted friend or family member can be of huge benefit. It can provide a source of support and relief, useful advice and guidance, and remind you that you’re not alone. That being said, it’s always worth making sure that you can trust whoever you speak to not to pass any private information on.
6. Lean on others through care support networks
If you’re unable to talk to or seek advice from a friend or family member – or would prefer to speak to someone else – then there are plenty of care support networks and resources available.
If you’re currently feeling stressed or anxious about a relative needing care, you might like to connect with other like-minded people on the Carers UK forum, or consider joining one of their support groups for carers. In addition, The Relatives & Residents Association is a national charity helping older adults who need care, and the relatives and friends helping them to cope. Another option is to contact the Carers UK helpline.
If after trying some of these resources you’re still feeling isolated or lonely, it’s important to keep in mind that finding the right support network for you can sometimes take time. Just remember that you’re never alone and there’s always help out there.
For more information on how to connect with others and cope with feelings of isolation, you might want to have a read of our articles 7 ways to meet new people, 7 ways to tackle feelings of loneliness, and Breaking the taboo on loneliness.
7. Take time out for yourself
While the majority of your focus will be on the person that you’re caring for, it’s also vital to make sure that you’re looked after too. Being responsible for another person’s wellbeing is a lot to take on. Without taking ample breaks and time to de-stress, this can begin to take its toll and leave you feeling overwhelmed, isolated, and unable to cope.
As a result, it’s important to look after your own mental health and make time to do things you enjoy, relax, and breathe. Most importantly, you should never feel guilty about taking time out for yourself – no one can work 100 percent of the time. Plus, you’ll be much better equipped to care for others when you feel more relaxed and refreshed yourself.
If possible, it can also be useful to try and add regular scheduled breaks into your caring routine. This can allow you to make plans in advance, give you things to look forward to, and make sure that the person you’re caring for knows what to expect.
The Carers Trust has more information about where and how you can get help to take a break. Or, if you’re particularly overwhelmed and feel that you may need to take a longer break, mental health charity MIND has some useful information on holidays and respite care.
8. Be sure to look after your physical health
When it comes to looking after yourself while you care for a loved one, physical health is just as important as mental health. Not only does physical exercise lower your risk of developing various health conditions, it also has a significant impact on mental health, and vice versa. Studies show that exercise reduces anxiety, depression, and other negative moods, while also improving self-esteem and cognitive function.
If you’re looking for a new activity to try, you’ll find plenty of inspiring ideas in the fitness and exercise section of our site. From walking and cycling, to yoga, Tai Chi, and pickleball, there’s something for everyone. You can also read more about the link between exercise and mental health in our article How exercise can lead to better brain health.
When you spend a lot of time caring for someone else, you may feel as though you have no time for yourself. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed and put your own health on the backseat, but looking after your own health and wellbeing is as important for both of you.
Taking a realistic approach to your situation, staying organised, and practising self-care are all effective ways that you can look after yourself as a carer. Different things will work for different people, but even trying one small thing could make a difference and help you feel more able to cope.
The most important thing is to remember that you’re never alone and that you can lean on the various resources and care networks that are standing by ready to help you.
What are your experiences of caring for others? How have you made sure you look after yourself as a carer? We’d love to hear about your experiences. Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum or leave a comment below.