Caring for elderly relatives is rarely an easy, straightforward job. One of the most difficult day-to-day decisions that many of us are faced with is balancing the risk of loneliness and mental health issues amongst our older relatives, with our own personal commitments. Remaining positive while ensuring your relative is well cared for and ticking off your day-to-day tasks can be a balancing act. And of course, dealing with the stress associated with caring for loved ones can be a challenge in itself.
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 that you can do to look 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 them 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 alleviate anxiety and help them to feel involved and prepared. Some of the points your plan should address are:
Emergency contacts. If you’re the main caregiver, figure out who will be able to support your relative if you can’t. If you don’t have other family members that 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 ensure that they’re taking any medication on time and in 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 will have enough food and essentials to tide them over.
- Get paperwork sorted. While it’s not nice to think about worst-case scenarios, it’s important to be prepared for every eventuality. We recommend helping your elderly relative set up a lasting power of attorney and get their will updated. 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 will 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 at such a difficult time and can lead to family arguments at times of stress.
2. Create a support network
It’s important that your relative feels supported and connected at this time – but it’s 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 a thoughtful care package from family members sent in the post may have the ability to make your relative’s day. If friends and family live nearby, then perhaps they could also pop in for a cup of tea every now and then.
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, a tablet 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. You may also want to do some Googling and give 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 matches your relative with a compatible volunteer so they can enjoy friendly phone chats.
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 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. Companies like Home Instead or The Good Care Group offer home support to those who need it, providing help with housekeeping matters, personal care or companionship. Depending on individual circumstances, you may have to pay for the care, but if your relative can afford this, it can be hugely beneficial for your own peace of mind, as well as the health and wellbeing of your family member.
Finding funding for care isn’t always easy however, and can be a hugely stressful time that piles financial worries on top of health and emotional challenges. If you are looking for further support and information you can try reading the Care Funding section of our site, or 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
In order to look after their mental health, it’s important for your relative to try to keep as busy as they can, and to carry on doing the things they enjoy, whether that’s going on a walk, watching TV, cooking, reading or knitting. “Ensuring you feel stimulated and have fun protects against loneliness and improves your general wellbeing,” says Olivia Field, loneliness lead at the British Red Cross.
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 they feel useful and purposeful. This doesn’t just reduce negative feelings like loneliness or depression, but also helps limit stress levels. On top of that, studies show that older adults who feel purposeful are less likely to develop diseases like dementia or Alzheimer’s.
There are lots of small projects they might enjoy working on, depending on their level of physical and mental capacity. 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 is reunited. They 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 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 so you can all sit outside and enjoy it when it’s safe to do so.
If your relative has the means, they may also want to consider volunteering online. There are dozens of virtual volunteering opportunities that you can do from the comfort of your home: if your loved one is familiar with Skype they could become a ‘Granny Cloud’ volunteer, where they’d Skype 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 to inform global bird research and assist 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.
5. Help them stay active
Physical exercise is always important, but it becomes especially valuable as we get older. Studies show that older people who exercise tend to have enhanced digestion, better bone density and blood pressure, and a stronger immune system. There are plenty of ways for them 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. Even activities like pottering about in the garden can have unexpected health benefits – plus it provides fresh air and sunshine.
There are plenty of low-impact indoor exercises suitable for older people, including yoga and Tai Chi. Both these exercises have powerful psychological benefits too: Tai Chi encourages you to be more aware of your own body and the world around you (mindfulness), which helps alleviate anxiety; and yoga can improve mood and enhance memory. You could also read our guide to building strength and balance. 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 usually helps lift your spirits 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 our article 14 low-impact exercise ideas, and in the healthy body section of our site
6. Care for yourself
No matter how capable and resilient you are, caring for older relatives can be upsetting, stressful and frustrating. It’s vital than ever to prioritise your own health and wellbeing too. No matter how busy you are, make sure you set aside time for yourself each day to do something you enjoy. It doesn’t matter what the activity is – it can be an evening stroll, a hot bath, or listening to music – but it’s essential you prioritise your own needs, not just those of your loved ones.
Some helpful ways of dealing with stress are:
Mindfulness and being in the moment. It’s easy to allow our anxieties to run away with us – and if you’re a caregiver you may be especially prone to worrying or rushing around. You may also find you spend too much time thinking about what’s happening tomorrow and trying to plan. This can seriously increase stress levels and affect sleep, so try to alleviate anxiety by focusing on the present moment. This is known as ‘mindfulness’ – but being present can be easier said than done. For more information and some helpful tips to get you started you can read our introductory guide to mindfulness or if you’re interested in practical activities to help you might want to check out our article on 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, and being able to talk about these emotions can help lessen the load. But 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, so 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 behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapy that helps us identify and challenge negative thoughts before they affect the way we think, feel and act, and it’s proven to be helpful in treating anxiety and depression. You can find out more about how CBT can help in our ‘Introduction to CBT’ article, and if you’d like more support, bear 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 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 want to do something more low-impact, consider getting into cycling. It doesn’t matter how you choose to stay active, but it’s crucial you get some fresh air and headspace when you’re caring for someone else.
Many older adults struggle with feelings of loneliness, so checking in on vulnerable loved ones is vital. While practical help is undoubtedly important, social support is just as crucial.
As a carer, it’s normal to feel like you should be doing more, but try to remind yourself of what a good thing you’re doing. By checking in on your loved ones and allowing them to feel connected, you’re helping prevent feelings like loneliness and vulnerability. Above all, remember that one of the most effective ways you can help your loved one is to prioritise your own health and wellbeing, and look after yourself.
Are you currently caring for an older relative? We’d be interested to hear about your experiences. Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.