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Staying well as a carer


Being a carer can be demanding, so finding the time to look after your own physical health can be really hard. It can also be difficult to know where to start when trying to become healthier, or even to notice sometimes when you are letting your usual good habits slip.

However, it is vital that you do try to stay well. This is not only for your own sake, but also for the sake of the person you care for, as they rely on you being well enough to keep looking after them.

To help, we have provided an overview of the most fundamental things you can do to look after your own physical health, as well as some ideas for how to fit them in around your other commitments.

It can be easy when you are busy caring for someone else to rely on unhealthy, quick convenience foods. Whilst these are fine in moderation – they can be great to grab after a particularly long day or as a treat, for instance – it can become an unhealthy habit if you have them too often.

Alternatively, you may sometimes be so busy that you find yourself skipping meals entirely, meaning you don’t have the nutrition you need to fuel yourself properly.

Maintaining a diet of three balanced meals a day, with at least five portions of fruit or vegetables, will boost your energy levels, make you feel healthier and help you get through your busy day. The NHS Eatwell Guide gives a good overview of the balance to try and aim for with every meal.

We understand that eating healthily can be easier said than done though. Here are our best tips to try and make it more convenient for you:

  • If you need to prepare a meal for the person you care for, you could use it as an opportunity to make a healthy meal for you both. You could even sit down and eat together, making it a nice social activity too.
  • It can help to plan your meals for the week ahead, and then buy the ingredients needed in advance. This can take the stress out of having to decide what to eat every day. Plus, if you know that you already have everything you need for the meal, you are less likely to either skip the meal or order a takeaway.
  • Or you could try batch cooking, where you prepare food for multiple meals in one go. You could make a big pot of soup, stew, chilli or curry, for instance, then divide it into smaller portions and freeze them. That way you have a meal that is ready to grab and reheat on particularly busy days. This is just as easy as a ready meal, but is likely to be much healthier.
  • If what is stopping you from cooking a healthy meal is not being able to find the time to go to the supermarket, why not order your shopping online? It can take a little longer the first time, but once you have set it up it can be much quicker and easier than going to the shop.

Exercise can help to keep you healthy by lowering your risk of developing long-term conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and cancer. It can also boost your self-esteem, improve your mood and help you to sleep better. [1] Being fit and active can also can assist with the physical demands of your caring role by lowering your risk of injury and helping to keep your energy levels high.

For many carers, finding the time to go for a long run, attend an exercise class or go to the gym may seem simply impossible. However, staying active doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. Sometimes just a five-minute walk down the road or a jog round the garden can make the world of difference.

Try to think of ways you could bring more activity into your normal day. For example, if you usually drive or get public transport when running errands locally, why not walk instead or get off the bus a stop early?

If you struggle to get time out of the house by yourself, you could try an exercise DVD or a workout video on YouTube. There are lots to choose from, catering for all ages and levels of fitness. You could even do one that combines exercise with relaxation, such as yoga. If staying active is something that the person you are caring for also struggles with, you could find a video that is suitable for their needs too, and do it together. It could be fun and good for your relationship as well.

The key to making this a lasting change is to find some form of exercise that you enjoy, so that it becomes something you look forward to rather than a chore. Think about any exercise you have enjoyed before, and whether you could do it again now. You could even think as far back as the sports you enjoyed playing at school, and see if anywhere local is offering a suitable option that you could take part in. It may even be a good way to meet new friends.

If you have any health conditions which might impact your ability to exercise, talk to your GP or another medical professional for their advice about the types of exercise that would be best for you.

Carers often report that they have trouble sleeping. However, getting a good night’s sleep can make a world of difference to both your physical and mental health. Sleep boosts your immune system, helps your body to repair itself and allows your mind to de-stress. [2] You probably know from your own experience how much better you feel when you’ve had a good rest. Here are our tips to help improve your sleep:

  • It can help to limit the amount of caffeine you have by cutting back on things like coffee, tea, caffeinated soft drinks and even chocolate, especially towards the end of the day.
  • Try to avoid drinking alcohol, as it can also disrupt sleep for some people.
  • Why not introduce a relaxing bedtime routine, including things like having a soak in a warm bath, making yourself a cup of camomile tea, listening to calming classical music or reading a book? It can be worth trying a few different things to see what works best for you.
  • It is often counterproductive to lie in bed for a long time, tossing and turning and getting increasingly frustrated that you can’t sleep. It can help to get up and do something else for a bit, such as reading a book, before going back to bed and trying again.
  • It can sometimes help to write down everything on your mind, whether that’s the things that are worrying you or everything you need to do the next day.
  • If you haven’t had much sleep the night before, it might help to have a short daytime nap to top up your sleep. If you have been unable to sleep because you are woken regularly in the night by the person you are caring for, you could try napping when they nap too. Be careful about having a nap too late in the day though, as it might stop you falling asleep that night.

If you find yourself regularly struggling to sleep, and particularly if it is impacting your life in other ways, talk to your GP about any support they can provide. If you are finding it hard to sleep because you are struggling with the emotional impact of caring, then take a look at our section on 'Managing difficult emotions as a carer'.

If you are the main carer for an older person or a person with a disability who may be at risk if you get sick, then you are eligible for a free flu vaccine. This is usually available from Autumn onwards every year and can be booked through many GP practices and pharmacies. A number of the larger high street pharmacy chains also have an option to book an appointment online.

Even if you aren't eligible for a free NHS vaccine, then you may still want to have one privately. They usually cost between £10 and £15, with supermarket pharmacies often providing the cheapest options.

In order to be eligible for things such as your free flu jab, you should tell your GP that you are an unpaid carer. This means they can not only inform you of any health programmes available for you, such as vaccinations, but will also give them further context when they are treating you for any illnesses or injuries you may develop. Furthermore, if you are taken suddenly ill they will be aware that the welfare of a vulnerable person may be at risk because you are no longer able to care for them and they can arrange for them to be looked after while you get better.

It is simple to register as a carer with your GP. Some surgeries have a form on their website you can fill in to notify them. Otherwise, you can either call them up, drop them an email, or write them a letter. Simply inform them that you are an unpaid carer and give the details of who you care for. In general, GPs are happy to be informed about this and usually won’t ask for further information or evidence.

Alternatively, if you are currently suffering mentally or physically as a result of your caring role, and would like some further assistance or treatment, then it may be worth booking a GP appointment. At this you could then inform them about being a carer and tell them further about the impact it is having. This will give them the opportunity to tell you more about the support services that are on offer in your local area, as well as any relevant treatment options.

It is likely that you already have a routine for the person you care for, with everything scheduled in to ensure their needs are met. What is much less likely is that you have a routine for your own self-care. But without a concrete plan in place, it can be hard to find the time in your busy life to look after yourself.

The plan can be as complicated as you like, or as simple as some timings hastily jotted down the night before. The most fundamental thing is to take time to think about when you will manage to do all the things you want to do, and then to commit in advance to doing them.

If you are not able to find any time at all in your daily routine for self-care, then that is likely a sign that you are overstretching yourself. Take a look at our guide 'Taking breaks as a carer' to see if you can access further support and give yourself some time back.

Online Help and Advice

Visit our online support section where we have provided advice and guidance on a range of relevant topics to help you in your caring role.

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