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Planning Retirement Online

Beyond the Headlines

March 2013


By Jeanne DavisJeanne Davis

Each month our resident writer and commentator Jeanne Davis goes behind recent news stories to comment on various ideas and subjects that have special resonance for our age group.

Written in her usual thought provoking and entertaining style, we know you will enjoy this addition every month


CAREGIVING: Physically demanding and emotionally taxing

Amongst the many films currently in the cinema targeted to those in laterlife, the one that impressed me the most is Amour, the story of a husband caring for his beloved wife who has become ill. The story traces her decline from disability to incapacity, and from an enviable life to mute despair. The film does not flinch from the inevitable procession of events.

When I asked friends if they had seen it, a surprising number said they knew about the film but did not want to see it. Afraid perhaps that it would be too emotionally upsetting both for those who had been caregivers themselves or were going to have to face it. Is it the inevitability of loss and death we cannot allow ourselves to face?

For me it was a soul searching and heart warming story of enduring love, of two people bound together by a love that endures through what becomes the most harrowing time in their lives.

I have been a caregiver. The latest census counts 6.5 million caregivers in the UK, defining caregivers as those caring for a family member who is unable to manage completely on their own, typically a parent or a spouse. If you are not currently playing that role, chances are you either have done this or will be doing it someday.

The help they give is wildly underestimated. For their loved ones, it fulfils the wish an overwhelming majority of older people express: to stay in their own homes and communities, rather than move to an institutionalised setting, when they can’t take care of all their daily needs.

Few of us are prepared for the challenge. Few know where to turn for help or advice. Most of us are just trying to muddle through. And we muddle through knowing that we must carry on and that to carry on is what we want to do.

I learned through reaching out that there are some helpful resources. The best was to join a local support group, where at weekly meetings we shared each others experiences and learned from the leader what services were available, though sometimes frustratingly. I took advantage of the free volunteer carer provided by my local carers association, which provided a carer to come in for 2 hours twice a week so I could go out for a long walk, meet friends for coffee or go to a yoga class. As my husband became more limited in what he could do for himself, social services provided a carer to come in each morning to bathe him, shave, and help him to dress.

At bedtime when he was unable to get to the bedroom himself from the sitting room and because he was too heavy for me to help him, a carer came in the evening. But this meant she put him to bed at 6:30 in the evening. This for man who had never gone to bed before midnight. He hated it and I despaired for him.

The most stressful responsibility for his care was getting medical advice for his Parkinson’s. I would be confronted with a number of options and asked to decide on the next step. Symptoms vary and fluctuate. There is no simple treatment. It was this responsibility as the patient advocate that took the greatest toll on my mental health.

More and more resources are being set up, to help the carer take better care of themselves. The carers association in London where I live has sessions to help carers deal with depression and anxiety. An official report on the mental health of carers found that over half report symptoms of mental health such as stress or depression. This is higher than in the general population.

There are programmes on injury prevention on how to approach the physical aspect of your caring role. An injury prevention therapist will teach you how to lift the patient, and how to move them. Many carers suffer debilitating back problems.

Many of us need a complete break from our caring role. There are retreats sponsored by local carers’ support organisations, where you will have a chance to learn stress reduction techniques and meditation. There will also be time to relax, enjoy the countryside, make friends and have fun.

The availability of support services throughout the UK is improving though in many areas still there is much to be done. You may be able to help your local carers group set up a mental health session or an injury prevention demonstration. I helped to pilot the injury programme for Kensington Carers, even helping to interview the professional the council was going to fund to run the programme.

Caregiving is fraught with a kaleidoscope of feelings: sadness, frustration, anger, anxiety, guilt, resentment, confusion, isolation, loss, fear, grief, impatience and stress.

But, as I discovered, there is devotion, tenderness, intimacy, gratitude, patience and purpose in your role.

To find your local carers organisation go to or telephone the CarersUK advice line: 0808 808 7777, open Wednesday and Thursday.

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