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4.2 Taking care of your wellbeing

Look after your own health, to help you both move forward with dementia.

Making sure you get time to rest and recharge is an important part of caring and essential for your own health.  Getting enough rest and taking regular breaks from caring can sometimes be challenging.  We suggest some actions you can take to support your wellbeing. Taking action now to look after your health will help you both to move forward, positively.

Staying physically and mentally healthy – rest well

As we get older, we all experience changes to our sleep patterns.  These might include needing less sleep, going to bed earlier and waking earlier, taking longer to fall asleep, and experiencing poorer sleep quality. People with dementia additionally experience changes and sometimes problems with their sleep including feeling very sleepy during the day, and not being able to get to sleep or stay asleep, at night.  If you live with the person you support, this may affect the sleep you are able to get.  Find suggestions to help the person you support sleep well in  Boost your physical health.

Suggestions for better sleep:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same times each day. Routine is a powerful way to help you get the rest you need.
  • Prioritise your sleep over other tasks that you feel need doing.
  • If you need a sleep during the day, take only a short nap (30 minutes, definitely no more than 45 minutes) in the early afternoon.
  • Follow a routine for going to bed, including 30 minutes to wind down. Some people find practising relaxation exercises or listening to calming music helps them settle.
  • Have a comfortable mattress, pillow and bedding so you’re at the right temperature.
  • Don’t drink right before you go to bed, to reduce the need to go to the toilet at night.
  • Avoid caffeine drinks from mid-afternoon. Consider trying non-caffeinated teas or decaffeinated coffee.
  • Avoid use of computers or other sources of blue light before going to bed.
  • Exercise during the day.
  • Getting outside in sunlight in the morning can help improve sleep at night.

Staying emotionally and mentally healthy – avoid becoming exhausted and ‘burnt out’

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Dementia is a long-lasting disease. If you are the main person providing support, you may be caring over many years. It can be easy to care for others and forget to care for ourselves.

Caring for someone involves giving your time, and your physical and emotional energy.  Constantly giving can take its toll on you – even if you see caring as a privilege or duty. Without enough care and support for yourself, you may be at risk of exhaustion, or what is sometimes called “burn out”.  If you are exhausted you may feel you don’t have the strength or ability to carry on with the normal things you do. You may feel overwhelmed, lose interest in things you usually enjoy, or you may feel hopeless. You may also notice you don’t sleep well, lose or gain weight or become ill more often. Burn out can sometimes come and go – some days you feel a bit better – while on other days, you feel quite low. While this is normal to have good days and not-so-good days, it is also a warning you need to pause and look after yourself.

The good news is that you can prevent or minimise burn out by taking regular breaks from supporting or caring. You need to prioritise taking breaks that will ‘recharge your batteries’ and continue this regularly, even if you feel that you are doing OK for now.

Two carers told us of different experiences:

Janet told us how she felt it was easy to be wise in hindsight. She explained, “I thought I could manage everything for Kenny after he was diagnosed with dementia.

Our kids are all busy with their families and I didn’t want to bother them. Eventually I think they gave up asking what they could do because I always said, ‘we are ok for now’.  Several years ago Kenny became severely constipated and hospitalised. I had no idea how exhausted I was. The staff took one look at me and said he had to go to a nursing home. He wasn’t that bad and his confusion got a bit better once the constipation was fixed. It was me… I had nothing left. I feel guilty and I also feel that if I had looked after myself better Kenny might still be at home with me.” 

Patricia’s experience was different: ‘I didn’t see the need for James (our son) to come and take Alex out every Saturday. James does landscaping and handyman jobs, and he would take Alex to the hardware while he got his supplies.

They spent hours there. James said he liked spending time with his Dad, but his aim to make sure I took a break every week. When James found out I was catching up on washing and housework, he sent his partner Ayisha over to ‘babysit’ me and ensure I did something I liked! Sometimes we watched an (uninterrupted) movie together and I enjoyed talking about the movie with her afterwards. Eventually I grew to really value that scheduled time off. Alex now goes to a day centre as well. He thinks it is the Men’s Shed* and he’s the director! It sounds funny, but I think the practice of learning how to take time out has kept me going over the past five years. Knowing I have that break coming up is a godsend.”

*Find out more about Men’s Sheds here.

The key message is to look after yourself. Don’t ask too much of yourself and don’t let other people -including family and friends- expect too much from you. Ask for the support you need or want and practise accepting offers of assistance. It can be hard but in the longer-term you will be glad you did. You can read more about carer stress and what to do about it at Carer’s UK.

The big picture – look after yourself!

It is important that you take care of your general health.  This will help you to keep able to keep supporting the person well.  Don’t ignore looking after any long term conditions you have and make sure you have regular check-ups with your GP. Make sure any medication you take is reviewed regularly and you are taking medications correctly. A healthy lifestyle will help too.

Looking after your health may involve regular check-ups with the dentist, optician, and other health professionals. Be on the lookout for changes in your health and how you feel and see your GP when changes occur.

Rest well

Try to get 8 hours sleep a night, by cutting down on daytime naps and using a sleep routine. Talk to your doctor if you have trouble sleeping.

Manage other health issues

Be proactive and prioritise regular check-ups with health professionals.