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Caring for someone who is older and frail


It is common when caring for someone who is frail or older to not always think of yourself as a 'carer'. Other than the frailness caused by old age, they could be otherwise fit and well with few or no diagnosed medical conditions. You could have found yourself taking on more and more tasks very gradually over a long period of time as their ability to look after themselves has deteriorated, without fully realising quite how much you are now doing.

A carer is someone who cares, unpaid, for a friend or family member who due to illness, disability, a mental health problem or an addiction cannot cope without their support. [1]

Caring for someone who is frail or older can be not just physically demanding, but also can be emotionally trying too. It can be hard for both of you to accept that they are getting older.

Helping someone with everyday tasks can be hard work, but it can make a vital difference to them being able to live independently. You are giving them the most incredible gift – that of the freedom to stay in their own home for as long as possible.

Your friend or relative may not always express gratitude for this support however, and could be resistant to your help. They might think that they don’t need any support, and that they are still fully capable of looking after themselves. Or it could be the case that they are used to be the one caring for you, for example if they are your partner, parent or grandparent, so it can be a big adjustment for the roles to be reversed. Perhaps they understandably don’t want to face that they are getting older, which can be a difficult thing to accept. All of this can make caring for them sometimes feel like quite a thankless task.

It can also mean that they may not ask for your help, even when they really need it. It is common for those who are older or frail to try and carry on with their everyday tasks as though they are still as young and sprightly as they used to be. Sometimes it takes something like them having a fall to make them (or indeed anyone else) realise that they need more support.

If you have a friend or relative who is frail or older, it is therefore worth trying to spend some time observing them carrying out their everyday tasks and watching for any where they seem to be struggling and might need a little assistance. You could even try to do an informal assessment of where they are living to make sure that it is set up correctly to meet their physical capabilities, and see if there are any aids or other equipment that may help them. If possible, it is good to repeat this regularly as they get older, in case their capabilities change.

There could be limitations on the care that you are able to provide for your friend or relative. You may live a long way away from them, or maybe there are some types of care, such as personal care, that you or they would rather you didn’t do. You may also not be quite as young as you used to be yourself – more than half of all carers in the UK are older than 55, and more than 20% are over 65 [2] - so you may find it too physically demanding to carry out all the care needed alone. Or you may have other responsibilities in your life such as children, a job or other friends or family members requiring care.

You should not feel guilty about any of these limitations. You are providing as much help and support as you are able to. It is important, however, to try and be as honest as possible about what these limitations are, so that you are able to seek additional help for the elements you aren’t able to do.

Where possible it is good to speak to the person you care for directly about all the decisions taken around their care, so that they feel involved and empowered. This can make the whole process run smoothly and help them to retain as much dignity as possible.

For further advice about everyday tasks that you might need to assist with, take a look at our guide 'Helping someone with everyday tasks'. Often old age can bring with it other conditions which also impact on how you care for your friend or relative. You may therefore also find some of our other guides helpful too including 'Caring for someone with dementia', 'Caring for someone with sight loss' and 'Caring for someone with hearing loss'.

Alongside the normal, day-to-day events, you will occasionally encounter things that are out of the ordinary. Although it is not always easy to plan for these, it can still help to learn more about them in advance so that you are more prepared. This will help you to stay calm and feel in control in what can sometimes be very stressful situations. Take a look at our guide 'Planning for emergencies as a carer' for more information.

One out-of-the-ordinary event that could occur is your friend or relative needing to spend some time in hospital. This could be a planned visit such as for a scheduled operation, or it could come out of the blue for instance if they have a fall. Our guide 'Caring for someone coming out of hospital' gives a full overview of everything you should know about the transition home again after their hospital stay.

It is very common to worry about the financial implications of looking after someone, and it can be confusing to understand what financial support is available and how you can access it. The good news is we have got a full and comprehensive guide to everything from benefits to grants in our 'Getting financial support as a carer' guide.

Caring for someone who is frail or older can be a big responsibility, but many people are still able to combine this role with paid external work as well. If you want to be able to do both, take a look at our guide 'Working when you are caring' for advice on how to manage this balance successfully.

Caring for someone can significantly affect your relationship with that person. You may be used to just being their partner, son, daughter, sibling, grandchild or friend. Becoming their carer as well can therefore be a big adjustment.

Sometimes caring for someone who is frail or older can improve your relationship with them. Some carers find that they become closer with their friend or relative through spending more time with them. In many cases, however, it can put new strains on your relationship. Alongside this, becoming a carer can also have an impact on all of the other relationships in your life too.

For advice and support on ways to manage these changes, take a look at our guide 'How your relationships can change when you become a carer'.

As a carer it is common to prioritise the person you care for’s needs over your own. But it is vital that you make sure you also look after yourself. Not only are your own needs important in themselves, you also need to stay well so that you can keep looking after your friend or relative too. Take a look at our 'Looking after yourself as a carer' guide for advice on how to keep yourself well, including information about how to take breaks.

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