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Taking care of yourself

Carers' wellbeing

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Staying healthy is important for everyone, but it's especially important for carers.

Many carers have little time to themselves for cooking nutritious food or exercising, and many feel emotionally drained or stressed and sleep badly. This makes carers prone to poor health, which can be exacerbated by a lack of time to be able to see a doctor or pharmacist.

Click on the bars below to find out more about how to stay healthy while looking after someone.

Eating well

Having a balanced diet is an important part of staying healthy. A healthy, balanced diet contains the right proportions of starchy foods, fruit and vegetables, protein-rich foods, milk and dairy foods, and fat and sugar.
 
When you're busy it can be hard to find the time or energy to eat well. It can be especially difficult when you're a carer and are thinking about the person you look after as well as yourself.

As a carer it's especially important to make sure you eat well, because the strain of caring can take its toll on your health. Eating a nutritious diet is an important way of keeping healthy and protecting yourself against the potentially damaging effects of caring.

If you're getting the right proportions of protein, fibre, starchy food, fruit and vegetables, and sugar and fats, you'll feel better and will be giving yourself a better chance of fighting off infections and disease. Read the eight tips on getting a healthy diet.

Aim to eat at least five portions of different fruit and vegetables every day, as they are an important source of vitamins and minerals. There is evidence that people who eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day are at lower risk of serious conditions such as coronary heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

NHS Choices provides tips on getting 5 A Day, including how to get 5 A Day on a budget and a weekly 5 A Day shopping planner.

Exercise

Regular exercise is a vital part of staying healthy. Research shows that regular exercise can improve your health, confidence and quality of life. It also acts as a stress-buster, can improve your sleep and reduces your risk of serious illnesses.

Even if you haven't exercised for years, a little exercise each day, building up to 30 minutes a day at least five days a week, can make a huge difference to your health and how you feel.

When you're looking after someone else it can be difficult to find time for yourself. If you find it hard to get out of the house even to do the shopping, making time for a walk or a swim may be very difficult. However, doing this can make you feel mentally and physically better, so it's worth trying to do. Ask family, friends or a neighbour if they can sit with the person you look after, even if it's only for half an hour. That can give you time to get out for a while and take a brisk walk.

One of the best ways to get started exercising is to take up a course such as the free NHS Couch to 5K running plan. The Couch to 5K plan is designed to get you off the couch and gradually work you up to running 5km, or for half an hour, in just nine weeks.

If you don’t fancy starting off running, you might want to start walking for health. NHS Choices also has tips on getting started cycling, getting started swimming, or even tips on getting started dancing for fitness.

For more information on keeping active see Live Well: Fitness.

Sleeping well

Disturbed nights are often part of everyday life for carers. Sleep is very important for your mental and physical health. If you don't get enough sleep you can quickly start to feel low. There are some simple ways to help you get a good night's sleep. If you're still having problems, your GP may be able to help.

Although it is not always possible with caring responsibilities, one of the best ways to get a good night’s sleep is to have a regular bedtime routine.

Sleep problems can have a variety of causes and sleeping tablets aren’t always the best solution. Your GP is likely to suggest other options, such as keeping a sleep diary before they offer you a prescription.

Getting support with your caring role may help. If you haven't already had a carer’s assessment with someone from your local authority, ask for one.

Remember to talk to your family and friends. The people who care about you will want to know if you're struggling and they can offer support and friendship.

Caring for your back

Bad backs are a common problem, and can range from slight discomfort to pain that immobilises you. It is easier to prevent back problems than to recover with them.

Staying active is important in preventing back pain, but you can follow some simple tips to help prevent back problems developing.

The best ways to avoid back pain are: good posture when sitting and safe lifting techniques.

Practical help

You may find your role as a carer puts extra strain on your back, especially if you have to lift the person you care for or help them in and out of bed. Your local authority may be able to tell you about training to teach you how to lift without damaging your back. It’s also worth asking carer centres and support groups in your area if they offer training.

You may be able to get more direct, practical help. If you haven't had one, ask your local council for a carer's assessment. This will look at your needs as a carer, and gives you the chance to talk about the kind of help you need. You may be able to get more direct practical help.

Practical support can vary from someone coming in to wash or bathe the person you look after, to someone sitting with them while you have a break. You may also be able to have the home of the person you care for adapted, or have equipment installed that will help you and them. For more information see the care at home pages.

You can ask your GP to refer you for an occupational therapy assessment. The British Red Cross also offers a range of services, including lending you equipment. The Disabled Living Foundation (0845 130 9177) can give you expert advice on aids and adaptations.

Emotional problems

Being a carer can be a difficult role to take on, and it can affect you emotionally as well as physically. Many carers say they feel anger, resentment, guilt, loneliness and depression.

It's often easier to ask for help for a physical ailment than it is for an emotional one. Emotional problems can be just as painful as a bad back or a twisted ankle. It can help to understand your emotions better.

Many carers admit that their caring role has affected their health, but help is available.

Where to get help

  • Talk to your friends and family. Let them know how you're managing, what problems you're facing and ask them for their support and help.
  • Get in touch with local carers groups, such as Carers UK and Carers Trust. Other carers can be a great source of support. They are familiar with what you're going through and may be able to suggest solutions that have worked for them. 
  • Some carers groups have online forums, where you can chat on the internet. Ask for details at your local groups. 
  • Talk to your GP. They may be able to refer you to a counselling service or give you information about local support groups.
  • Your local authority can give you information about local support groups and carers centres. They may also be able to provide a sitting service or break service to give you some time to yourself.
  • If you need someone to talk to, call the Samaritans. The helpline, 08457 90 90 90, is open day and night.
  • You might even want to consider Do-It-Yourself therapy.
  • The NHS Choices Moodzone has information on coping with stress, anxiety and depression, as well as useful advice, tools and practical tips to support people on their way towards feeling better.

Dealing with stress

When you're a carer, stress is often part of your life. Extra responsibilities, worrying about the person you care for and having to be around to help them at any time can all increase your levels of stress.

Everyone feels stressed sometimes. A small amount of stress can be good for us, giving us an extra boost to perform better. However, being stressed for long periods can cause mental or physical health problems. Many people in a caring role are likely to be more at risk of long-term stress because of the pressures they face every day.

The first step in dealing with stress is to recognise that it's happening. You may have so little time to yourself that you don’t realise at first. When you do start noticing the symptoms of stress, don't struggle on, hoping it will go away. The sooner you deal with the problem, the better. Just talking about how you feel can help you find a way to deal with it.

Your GP may be able to offer you some ways to manage your stress.

Talking to other people who are in a similar situation can be helpful when you're feeling stressed. Carers support groups such as Carers UKCarers Trust have groups around the country and offer a variety of support services for carers. These include sitting services and respite care to give you some time to yourself. You may also find other, local support groups in your area.

Talk to your family and friends as well. Just talking about how you feel can make you feel better.

Depression

Depression is an illness, just as flu and chickenpox are, and needs to be taken just as seriously. The difference with depression is that it lasts longer and can have an extreme effect on your life. The symptoms vary in different people. Knowing what the symptoms of depression are, who you should talk to and what treatments are available can help you recognise the early signs of depression.

Because of the stressful nature of their lives, carers can be more prone to depression. The General Household Survey of 2000 found that of those caring for more than 20 hours a week and living with the person they cared for, 14% reported feeling depressed. Of those who cared for 50 or more hours a week, this figure rose to 34% feeling depressed.

If you think you may be depressed, see your GP. Don’t be embarrassed: depression is very common. One in five of us experience depression at some point in our lives. It's important to see your GP sooner rather than later, so you can start having treatment and start feeling better.

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Page last reviewed: 03/02/2012

Next review due: 03/02/2014

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