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Planning Retirement Online

When you care for someone in later life

It's hard work being a carer.
Flora Harris offers some advice.

As people live longer, more and more of us are finding ourselves in the role of carers - for our parents, our partners, perhaps other relatives or friends. If they want to continue living in their own homes, we take on the job of supporting them, which may mean anything from cooking and shopping to getting them to the toilet and giving them a wash or bath.

Caring can be a (literally) back-breaking business, but it is also an opportunity to show love, a kind of thank you for the good years or the caring that we received when we were children.


How can we best help those we care for?

  • Encourage the person to keep physically active. Plan regular outings to different places, even if only a very short walk is possible.
  • Encourage the person to do everyday tasks like making a cup of tea or getting to the toilet unaided - if in doubt then seek medical advice first.
  • Save up interesting stories, bits of gossip, topics from newspapers, news of friends, etc, and make a point of regularly introducing them into the conversation.
  • Put yourself into the person’s shoes. It helps when you come up against resistance to some sensible suggestion which you know would be of great benefit to the person.

How to cope when communication is difficult

  • If the person is mentally confused or has difficulty communicating, remember to talk more slowly. Switch off the television or radio. Hold the person’s hand and establish eye to eye contact if possible.
  • Keep to a regular routine and timetable, explaining what you are doing now and what day it is, and any other simple descriptions and reminders of normal life.
  • Do point out minor confusions such as whether the meal being served is breakfast or dinner, or the day is Tuesday, not Wednesday. On the other hand, try to distract rather than contradict if the person keeps repeating the same mistake, such as talking about a dead person as if he or she is alive, or confusing you with someone else.
  • Memory joggers…. A large-print calendar keeps track of the days for anyone with poor vision or poor memory.... written messages pinned up on a door can say where you or the doctor, or other people can be contacted...a picture of the lavatory on the lavatory door may be useful.

Keeping the home safe

  • Carpets and rugs should be well secured. No slippery polished floors, no frayed ends of carpets.
  • Lighting should be very bright especially on stairs. Keep a night light on in the bedroom and have the hall or landing and bathroom/toilet light on all night..
  • Don’t have cord flexes trailing across floors, and remove any obvious obstructions like low coffee tables where people walk.
  • A hand-rail on the stairs gives extra support.
  • An electric cooker is safer than a gas cooker.
  • Keep saucepan handles facing to the back of the cooker when they are on the hob. Keep pans on the rings when they are cooling.
  • Run cold water in the bath first, and never let it be too full.

Lifting and shifting

Back pain is one of the most common side effects of being a carer. Minimise strain by planning moves in advance.

  • Going up narrow stairs, get behind and offer support under the armpits while the person also makes use of the handrails.
  • Encourage walking by putting one arm round the person’s waist and lifting from under the armpit in front with the other hand. If you place yourself at an angle half in front you can control foot movements and use your knee as a support on the weaker side.
  • To help someone out of a chair stand facing with bent knees and hands under the person’s armpits and keep back straight as you both rise to standing position. Always stand as close to the person as is possible before lifting, keeping feet apart for good balance and using leg muscles rather than your back.

Choosing useful gadgets

Many gadgets are available to make life easier for the helpers and those who are helped. Cutlery, pencils, adaptations for taps and switches can be bought for stiff, arthritic fingers. Discuss home modifications such as stair or bath lifts with the appropriate health worker.

You may be able to hire or try out some items like wheelchairs or walking sticks through the Red Cross. A community alarm for people living alone, which can be incorporated into a telephone or worn as a pendant, gives an immediate alert in an emergency.

Getting help for yourself

It’s never easy to assess when things get beyond being manageable. Much easier to feel guilty at having negative thoughts and then brush them away and carry on as before. Talk to your doctor or health adviser about respite care, which can mean anything from the odd night ‘sitter’ to the person going into a residential home for a couple of weeks now and then.


The Carers’ Association runs a helpline, gives advice on respite care, benefits, etc, and can refer carers on to support groups; 20-25 Glasshouse Yard, London EC1A 4JS. Helpline: 020 7 490 8898, open weekdays

The British Red Cross Society carries equipment and items for short-term loan and also offers respite care. Look in local telephone directory or telephone London HQ on 020 7 235 5454. Website:

Community Alarm Systems may be obtained free from some local authorities, or a small weekly fee may be charged. Further information from Seniorlink 01483 773952

The Disabled Living Foundation offers advice on where to get equipment, clothing, etc, and also has a helpful list of booklets and other publications and an equipment centre to try things: 380-384 Harrow Road, London W9 2HU. Helpline 0870 603 9177. Website email:

Smith+Nephew provide a wide variety of living aids - you can view the 10 most popular items in the living aids section and also order a catalogue with the hundreds of items they provide.



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