Footstep 8

Health for carers

Being a carer can be demanding. We often put other’s needs before our own. As a consequence, we can take our eye off the ball and ignore our own health. This Footsteps offers some ideas about maintaining your health alongside your commitments...

Healthy eating

Many people think that healthy eating requires extra time to shop, prepare and cook. This does not have to be the case.

For example, the story from Cyrus (below) shows that we don't need to make big changes – taking one small step can help us to get on the right path.

Taking one small step

Cyrus hated breakfast. He was always too busy in the morning and if he did eat it was 'on the go', which then made him feel nauseous. Instead he just had a mug or three of tea. He would grab a sandwich while preparing his partner’s lunch. They eat together in the evening.

When he tracked his eating patterns he realised he was not eating enough earlier in the day to provide him with the energy he needed for his commitments. He discussed the problem with his partner and they agreed to eat together at every meal; after all Cyrus was preparing three meals a day for his partner and it would give them some quality time to talk as well as being healthier for Cyrus.

Cyrus’ first small change was to have a banana at breakfast and gradually build from there to eat the same breakfast as his partner. Overtime, he noticed he had more energy in the morning, was less grumpy and tasks did not feel so overwhelming.

Cyrus’ story shows that we do not need to make big changes – taking one small step can help us to get on the right path.

Other hints and tips for healthy eating

  • People who skip breakfast find eating very small portions is a good start to eating better. Ask yourself: “where can I start?”
  • Healthy diets fuel our bodies to give us the energy we need, boost our immune system, help the body repair itself and can also improve our mental wellbeing.
  • Consider: “what three small changes could I make to my diet?”
  • Healthy eating can help us maintain a healthy weight, reduce our risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, cancer, constipation, depression and anxiety. Think: “each small step is good for me.”
  • Mediterranean diets based on pasta, fish, lentils, chicken, vegetables and fruits can help joints, muscles and nerves work better. Explore more about Mediterranean diets here. Remember “olive oil is good for me”.
  • Fruit juices and water are healthy too and help reduce drinks with caffeine like coffee and tea. Maybe: “if I have water instead of my last cup of tea, I might sleep better!”
  • Regular eating is better for energy. Ask yourself: “do I eat at the same times most days – do I need to make a small change?”
  • Daily supplements can be helpful. The UK Government suggests we should all take Vitamin D from 1st October to 31st March as there is insufficient sunlight during a UK winter to maintain Vitamin D levels – especially if you are indoors most of the time. Consider if you are on any medication: “I’ll ask the pharmacist at my local chemist if it is safe to take Vitamin D supplements”.
  • Eating is an important social activity. Remember: “when I can, I will sit and eat with others.”

Mr Cookfulness – a therapeutic approach to cooking

Ian Taverner, who has presented at the Footsteps Festival, offers many hints and tips on saving time, enjoying food preparation and eating well. He understands the demands placed on people with pain and mental health conditions. His approach fits perfectly for carers too.

Eating is an important social activity. Remember – when you can, sit and eat with others.

Getting active

You might be asking why we have included “getting active” – you are already busy enough! But here we are talking about activities that are meaningful to us and aid our fitness and wellbeing, rather than just those that meet basic needs.

Meaningful activities are generally ones that are enjoyable. They may also help us move towards a goal. It may be that you can work with the relative or friend you care for on a joint activity to help both of you get fitter.

Perhaps the person you care for would not be up to such strenuous exercise. Perhaps you need to stay with them but could do some standing exercises while they do sitting exercises – encouraging each other along the way.

Enjoyable, rewarding and regular activity builds confidence to do things, lessens the struggle with daily life, aids sleep and improves both mental and physical health.

The key to getting fitter is to keep it going every day

To help maintain regular activity levels, there are a number of things that you can do:

Learn the skill of pacing

Pacing is a really useful skill as it guides you to do the level of activity that is right for your body. When you pace activity, you take a break before tiredness or exhaustion force you to stop. Remember your Five Teaspoons of Energy.

Try doing activities outside during the day

Being outside in the daylight helps your body clock to stay in balance with day and night time patterns. It can help with stressful feelings too.

Avoid energetic activities shortly before sleep

Exercising late in the day ‘wakes up’ your body and so it can lead to problems falling or staying asleep.

To help with sleep, the best time to exercise is late in the afternoon or early evening. Find out more about sleep in Footstep 9.

Choose something easy and fun

  • A gentle walk in a favourite place – pace the time and length
  • Stretching and listening to your favourite radio programme
  • Gentle yoga or Pilates, guided by a DVD, website or App
  • Dancing to enjoyable music at home
  • Planting bedding plants in tubs or flowerbeds

Explore local fitness and activity opportunities

Find out what is available in your local area.

It could be a fitness group – but anything that involves moving and stretching, such as a pottery class or a singing group, is also fine.

Keeping motivated

This can be a tough one, so here are some tips:

  • If the activity you choose is too much effort, simply do something else.
  • Tell other people what you have achieved so that they can see your progress and support you.
  • Find other people to do the activity with – fitness is more fun with friends, and that means you are more likely to keep it up.

Prioritising you

Remember if you do not look after yourself, you will not be able to support the person you care for.

Karen was roped into swimming with her partner and now “loves it.”

She learnt though that she needed to buy appropriate wet gear if she was going to help her partner get in and out of the water.

Henry and Elsie used to enjoy ballroom dancing. Elsie is too unsteady on her feet to try that now.

One afternoon a week, Henry puts on ballroom dancing music, they sit in chairs opposite each other and move their feet to the steps, having a good laugh while they do so.

If the weather was good Dee and her Mum would drive up to the moor. They would walk a little way and then picnic.

Afterwards, Dee would go for a walk, while Mum slept or read, before we returned to the car together.

Remember – if you don't look after yourself, you will not be able to support the person you care for

Supporting your health

Did you know:

Carer's Assessments: If you care for someone and are over 18, you can have a free assessment to see what might help make your life easier. Find out more here

Flu Vaccine: Register at your GP's as a carer and you will be entitled to flu and COVID-19 vaccines.

Carer’s Liaison at GP practices – check what your practice offers.

Resources for you to use

Interactive guide to eating well

Explore the NHS guidance on eating well with this interactive online guide

Health for carers: key ideas

  • Healthy diets fuel our bodies to give us the energy we need, boost our immune system, and can also improve our mental wellbeing
  • Keep active with activities that are meaningful to us and aid our fitness and wellbeing, rather than just those that meet basic needs
  • Remember – if you don't look after yourself, you won't be able to support the person you care for