Managing everyday needs

Some people may feel too tired or weak to manage everyday things. This may be because the cancer has become more advanced or because they are coping with the symptoms and side effects of treatment.

The person you are looking after may need help with practical things, such as household chores like cleaning, cooking and shopping.

You may need to help them with their personal care. This can include:

  • bathing
  • getting dressed
  • going to the toilet
  • moving around.

You may also need to help them with medicines. If they are taking a few medicines, it can become difficult to keep track of. Ask their GP or local pharmacist about a dosette box. It has different compartments for tablets. Each compartment shows what day and time the tablets need to be taken.

There are health and social care professionals that can support you with personal care. Talk to the GP, specialist nurse or social worker. They may be able to refer you to some services for help.

Helping with everyday tasks

Some people with cancer need more help with everyday tasks, such as bathing, dressing and cooking. They may feel weak or tired because of the symptoms or side effects of treatment. They may need more help because the cancer has become advanced. There are health and social care professionals that can support you.

Helping someone with their everyday needs can affect your relationship with them. Some aspects of caring may make you and the person you care for feel embarrassed. We have more information to help you cope with the emotions you may both be feeling.

As a carer I sometimes helped Katy walk, dress and get into the wheelchair. You have many roles as a carer, you do as best you can. It’s a huge learning curve.

Ciarán, who cared for his wife Katy


Washing and bathing

The person you are looking after may need help with a bath, shower or wash. Regular washing can help someone feel more comfortable and lift their mood. It may also help prevent infections. Some people with cancer spend large amounts of time in bed, which can make them feel sticky and hot. Or they may have a type of cancer or treatment that causes heavy sweating.

The district nurse or social worker may be able to arrange for a care worker to come in each day to help with bathing. If you prefer to do it yourself, the care worker can show you what to do.

Change the bed sheets as often as you can. Ask the district nurse or care worker to show you how to do this if the person cannot get out of bed.

Marie Curie has a useful video about helping someone wash.


Clothing

It’s a good idea for the person you are caring for to wear loose, comfortable clothes that are easy to get on and off. For example:

  • skirts or trousers with elastic waistbands
  • shoes and slippers with Velcro® straps.

Clothes that are easy to wash and dry, and don’t need a lot of ironing, are also a good choice. Or the person you are caring for may want to stay in their night clothes if they are more comfortable.

Wearing practical clothes can be helpful, but some people may prefer to wear the clothes they have always worn. This may help them to feel like themselves and feel in control.

Someone with cancer may feel colder or warmer than usual. They may be having hot flushes because of their treatment. Wearing layers that can be easily taken off and put on again can help.


Hair care

The person you are looking after may feel better if their hair is washed regularly. If they cannot get to the sink, you could buy a plastic hair-washing tray from a disability aids supplier. You could try using a rinse-free, waterless shampoo (or cap) that you put directly on their hair and remove by drying with a towel. Ask at your local pharmacy for information about these products or search online.

Some hairdressers and barbers have a mobile service and will visit the person you are caring for at home, so they can get a haircut.

They may also need help with shaving. If you are unsure about this, you could ask the care worker or district nurse for advice.

If the person’s hair has fallen out because of treatment, it is important to take care of the skin on their head and other places where there was hair. Their scalp may become dry and itchy, and may be more sensitive. It can help to gently rub unperfumed moisturising cream into their scalp. It is important to check with the hospital, GP or district nurse before you apply anything to the skin.

We have more information on coping with hair loss, which has helpful tips on coping with a dry scalp.


Nail care

It may be possible for someone from a voluntary group to give the person you care for a manicure or pedicure at home.

Chiropodists or podiatrists will also often make home visits. This service is not always free so check first. If the person you care for is diabetic, always ask a chiropodist to cut their toenails. You can be referred to a chiropodist by your GP.


Toilet needs

If the person you are looking after is very weak, you may need to help them go to the toilet or use a commode, bedpan or urinal. This can be one of the most difficult parts of caring and you may both be embarrassed at first. The district nurse can give you some advice and, if necessary, arrange for someone to help with their toilet needs once or twice a day.

Marie Curie has some useful tips on helping someone use the toilet.

The person you are caring for may have lost some or all control of their bladder or bowel. This is called incontinence and can be very distressing for them. It can help to get some support and advice from the community nurse. The nurse or GP may also be able to refer the person you care for to a continence adviser.

If possible, make sure their bedroom is near a toilet. You can ask the district nurse for a commode, bedpan or urinal to keep nearby.

The nurse can give you information about using incontinence sheets, pads and pants, and protective bed covers. These may help keep the bed clean and make the person more comfortable.

If these don’t help, the nurse may suggest a urinary catheter. This means a tube is put into the bladder so urine can be drained into a bag. For men, it is possible to use a tube connected to a sheath that fits over the penis. Bags and tubes can easily be hidden by bedclothes and blankets.


Standing and walking

You may need to help the person you are caring for with standing and walking. You can ask a physiotherapist or district nurse for advice on how to do this. It is important to make sure this is done safely, to prevent you injuring yourself or the person you are caring for. It will help if you are both wearing comfortable shoes that fit well and have a good grip on the floor. Make sure the floor is cleared of any possible trip hazards, such as shoes or bags.

Marie Curie has a useful video which shows how to help someone stand and walk.


Managing falls

The person you care for may be at risk of falling. This may be because they have problems moving around or they have had falls in the past. Their GP or district nurse can refer them to a falls prevention service. This service can vary depending on where the person you care for lives. But they may be able to get physiotherapy to help avoid falls and advice on getting rid of trip hazards.

If the person you are caring for does have an unexpected fall, don’t try to move them. You may risk injuring them more and hurting yourself. You should call an ambulance. The paramedics will check them for any injuries and will help move them back to a chair or bed.


Moving and turning

The person you are looking after may need help getting in and out of bed. The district nurse, physiotherapist or occupational therapist (OT) can show you the best way to do this. Doing this safely can help reduce risks to the person you are caring for and prevent you from injuring your back. It can also reduce the risk of falling. You may be able to use a hoist or sling, or a second person could help you. If you need more help, the district nurse may be able to arrange help from care workers.

People who are bed-bound, especially those who are very ill or very thin, are at risk of getting pressure sores. These are very uncomfortable and can become infected. To avoid getting sores, they will need to change their position regularly. If they cannot turn themselves, ask the district nurse to show you the best way of turning them.

A pressure-relieving mattress, and ankle or elbow pads will help reduce the risk of pressure sores.

If you have time and the person you are caring for wants you to, you can gently massage their back, arms or legs. People who are in bed for a long time may find this soothing. Use a light moisturising cream, such as aqueous cream, or almond or vegetable oil. This also stops their skin from drying out.

You should not massage areas that are swollen, sore, inflamed or have broken skin, including areas of lymphoedema (swelling of the arms and legs). If you are unsure, always ask the nurse or doctor before doing anything. If the person has had radiotherapy treatment, check with the hospital, GP or district nurse before you put anything on the treated area.

Your local Carers Trust Carers’ Centre may offer training in areas such as first aid, and moving and handling. You could also speak to your GP or district nurse. The British Red Cross also offers free courses on handling and can supply equipment.


Help with medicines

The person you are caring for may be taking medicines. These may be tablets, liquids, creams or inhalers. They may need help managing this. You could help them remember all the medicines they need to take and how often they need to take them. Or you may need to help them swallow tablets or apply creams.

It is important to check the information on the prescription label. Look for:

  • the person’s name and the medicine name – is it the correct medicine?
  • the expiry date – is it still in date?
  • how often it should be taken
  • how it should be taken – for example, is it swallowed whole or dissolved in water?

It is also helpful to check the leaflet that comes with the medicines. This will give you any special instructions, such as whether the medicine needs to be taken before or after food.

You could ask the GP or pharmacist about a dosette box. This is a plastic box that has separate compartments for tablets. Each compartment shows what day and time the tablets need to be taken. The pharmacist will put the tablets into the right compartments for you, so you can take it home already made up.

A dosette box
A dosette box

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If the person you are caring for has lots of medicines to take every day, it can be difficult to keep track. A medication planner is a good way to keep a note of what needs to be taken and when. You or the person you are caring for can fill in the blank spaces with the names of medicines and details of how and when to take them.

This medication planner was developed with help from Boots Macmillan Information Pharmacists. These specially trained pharmacists are available in some Boots stores and can help you with questions about medicines. Other local pharmacists can also give you support and guidance about medicines too.

Marie Curie has a useful video about helping someone take medicines.

Back to Looking after someone with cancer

What is a carer?

A carer is someone who gives unpaid practical and emotional support to a person who could not manage without this help.

Other care options

You may sometimes need a break from caring. Help is available to support you with looking after your loved one.

If you're a carer with cancer

Looking after someone while going through treatment yourself can be challenging. Support is available for carers.