Taking care of you
Taking care of your own health can be difficult whilst supporting someone living with dementia. You might prioritise their needs over yours, and caring can be stressful. Mild stress over the long term, affects your physical and mental health and so it is very important to look after your own health when supporting a person with dementia. If your health breaks down, you might worry about who will help the person you support. Taking action now to look after your health will help you both to move forward, positively.
Carers John, Joan, Peter, Val and healthcare professionals share why it is important to take good care of yourself too in this video.
Stay physically healthy by being physically active
Doing daily physical activity becomes more important as we get older. Physical activity can help you stay active – that “use it or lose it” idea is quite true!
Physical activity helps your health in many ways, including:
- reducing high blood pressure
- reduce your risk of falls
- managing your weight
- improving your sleep
- improving your mood
Research has shown that exercise can maintain or improve memory and thinking and help how you cope with daily life.
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How much physical activity should I do?
For adults and older adults, the UK government recommend:
- At least 150 minutes a week of exercise which makes you breathe more but you can still talk, such as brisk walking, cycling or swimming
- At least 75 minutes a week of activities which make you breathe fast and it is difficult to talk
You can do a combination of these and they also recommend you break up periods of time when you are inactive or resting.
You can download the free ‘Active 10’ app to help you keep track of your activity.
Building physical activity into your daily life
Some people prefer to build activities into their everyday life. You might walk up the stairs rather than take a lift, walk to the shops rather than drive, and do the vacuuming or gardening. The NHS physical activity guidelines for older people suggests which household tasks count as light exercise.
When people think about exercise, they often think of aerobic exercise. These are exercises which raise your heart rate and make you out of breath, like jogging, swimming, cycling and brisk walking. This kind of exercise can also help with your mood, how well you sleep and your physical health. There is evidence that strength training, may also be good or even better for the brain, see below. You can cross-train, that is use both types of exercise.
Strength or resistance training helps to keep your muscles, bones and joints strong. Strength based exercises include using your own bodyweight as resistance (such as press ups, squats and lunges), lifting weights or using exercise bands. Yoga, going to the gym or carrying heavy bags count too. Some studies suggest that combining aerobic activity and strength training is best. For adults and older adults, the UK government recommend doing strength training on at least two days a week.
If you haven’t done strength training before, you might want to join a class.
Start slow and build up gradually
If you don’t do much exercise at the moment, start slowly. Try doing a 15 minute walk a few times each week. Then build up to walking for longer and more often. If you are worried about the person you support going out walking, try to arrange it so they go with someone or use technologies to help. For more ideas read Helping the person you support to keep going out and socialising with others and Managing with difficulties when out.
Talk to your GP
If you don’t exercise regularly, talk with your GP about getting started. If you feel faint, dizzy or pain, stop and talk to your doctor. Ask your GP about social prescribing. A social prescriber is a link person in primary care who can help you to focus on what matters to you to look after your health and wellbeing
Ideas for getting active
Try to do exercise you enjoy, as you’re much more likely to stick with it. Many people prefer to exercise with others. You might enjoy dancing, the gym, golf or meet a friend regularly for a walk.
Organisations such as Age UK run a range of exercise classes such as yoga, pilates, and walking groups. They also run activities such as walking football. These are a great option for getting advice on your exercise and meeting new people. They also offer online excercise options for people who aren’t able to get to classes.
Many gyms also offer ‘off peak’ discount or special rates for older people. Many local councils run gyms and there are also many private gyms available too.
Staying physically healthy – eat and drink well
Carers lives are busy so it can be an effort to plan, shop for and prepare nutritious, healthy meals.
Dementia can bring additional challenges to meal times. Some people with dementia may experience changes in their eating habits and abilities. For example, some people experience changes in their taste and smell which can affect their appetite or prefer spicy or highly flavoured food. Some people with dementia experience changes in their ability to swallow food. Some people forget to eat, or for example, people with frontotemporal dementia often crave sweet things. Some medications can also dull the sense of taste. Eating well is important as diet has a big impact on brain health, energy levels and mood for you and the person you support.
Maintaining good nutrition can feel like an added challenge! Some tips to help you include:
- If shopping is difficult, consider using online shopping with home delivery. This is offered by the larger supermarkets, but many shops in small towns will offer this service
- Make shopping a social activity and go with a friend or neighbour.
- Consider getting a meal service. You can order a couple of meals a week from an online provider like Hello Fresh or Gousto who will deliver all ingredients with a recipe for a meal of your choice. This can be a good way to try new meals and add variety to the weekly diet. Wiltshire Farm Foods are a national company who deliver frozen meals to your door. They can provide specialist menus such as reduced sugar options, softer meals (minced or pureed) and smaller portions too.
- Supermarkets often sell pre-prepared vegetables for salads, soups and stews. This can cut down on preparation time.
- Cook in bulk. You can make double quantities and freeze portions for later.
- Ask others to help. Often family members or neighbours are happy to cook extra for your freezer.
- Involve the person with dementia in shopping and cooking. Even if they haven’t been interested in cooking previously, get them involved particularly in meal preparation. Preparation can sometimes stimulate the appetite.
- Keep nutritious snacks like nuts, unsweetened yogurt and fresh fruit on hand.
- If you need to change your diet, do it gradually.
Research shows a Mediterranean diet can help prevent dementia, but there is no proof this diet helps people who already have dementia. However it is a healthy diet which includes lots of vegetables and fruits, pulses and nuts, wholegrains, fish and seafood and olive oil, as well as some dairy.
Government guidelines can help you to make healthy choices. General advice suggests:
- Use salt sparingly
- Eat and drink less sugar
- Eat foods low in saturated fats and high in calcium and fibre
If you are concerned about your nutrition – or the nutrition of the person you support, talk to your GP. They may offer you advice and can refer you or the person you support to a dietitian for specific advice. Dietitians can also advise on particular issues that may affect eating, including poor teeth or dry mouth, as well as a healthy diet if people have other chronic health conditions.
Smoking and alcohol
Helpful government guidance is available on alcohol awareness and stopping smoking. Drinking alcohol may help you relax and cope with the stresses of caring, but it may also make the situation more stressful or affect your ability to provide support. Age UK offer helpful advice about sensible limits. The NHS offer smoking cessation support and advice.
Drink more water
It’s easy to forget to drink, and as we get older our sense of thirst decreases. What’s more, research suggests that people are able to think more clearly when they are well hydrated. Keeping well hydrated can also help you avoid problems like headaches and constipation. Make it part of your routine to have a glass of water with every meal, and in between meals too. To encourage you to drink more water, some people fill a jug or water bottle and leave on the kitchen bench to prompt them to drink water during the day. Water is the healthiest choice, but tea, milk, juice, soup also help you stay hydrated.
Start exercising or increase the exercise you do. Try aerobic exercise and strength training to keep you physically and mentally well.
Look for ways to improve your diet by eating more fresh food, reducing processed foods, and drinking more water.