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Caring for someone with a physical disability

The experience of caring for someone with a physical disability can feel very different for different people at different times.

Some people with a physical disability need very little care and are largely able to look after themselves, perhaps with the help of aids or adaptations such as a wheelchair and ramps. Others are able to do very little for themselves and require round-the-clock care. Even two people with exactly the same condition may experience very different degrees of physical disability. Or someone may have a condition that varies a lot, having good periods and bad periods, or one that gets better or worse over time.

Sometimes physical disabilities can come on very suddenly, such as those caused by a traumatic accident or a sudden illness like a stroke. In these cases, you are very quickly thrust into being a carer without any time to adjust. In other cases, your friend or relative might lose their ability to do everyday tasks very gradually, meaning you find yourself taking on more and more tasks over a long period of time.

Despite this wide spectrum of experiences, you are likely to have many of the same worries and challenges as other carers of people with physical disabilities. The most common issues that we see come up time and again are discussed below.

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.

It can be very tempting to just step in and do the tasks they are struggling with yourself. But it is better, if possible, to be patient and support them to be able to accomplish as much of each task themselves as they can. Focus on their abilities rather than their disabilities. This not only keeps up their skills but can also help their self-esteem.

At the same time, be careful not to push them to do things they really cannot do. This not only can make them feel like they have failed but could also lead to them pushing themselves beyond their physical capabilities, potentially injuring themselves in the process.

Remember that even though they may need lots of looking after, they should not be treated like children. Try and treat them just as you would if they did not have a physical disability. Respect their physical boundaries, ask permission before touching them or moving them, and do not make them do anything they don’t want to do or go anywhere they don’t want to go. It can also help to use language where their disability doesn’t define them. For example, rather than saying ‘they are disabled’, say ‘they have a disability’.

There could be limitations on the care that you are able to provide to your friend or family member. 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 – more than half of all carers in the UK are older than 55, and more than 20% are over 65 [1] - 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 the person you care for 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'.

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 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 a family member, 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 with a physical disability 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, parent, child, sibling, grandchild or friend. Becoming their carer as well can therefore be a big adjustment.

Sometimes caring for someone with a physical disability can improve your relationship with them. Some carers find that they become closer with the person they care for 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 them 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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