A woman helps a teenage girl with special needs.

How do you define a caregiver?

A caregiver is someone who looks after the basic caregiving tasks for another person.

Anyone who looks after another person who cannot cope without support, due to an illness, disability, mental health condition or any other problem, is a caregiver.

Many people do not see themselves as caregivers, and it often takes years for people to recognize themselves as being a caregiver, because caregiving means different things to different people.

If you provide regular, unpaid support to a loved one who needs help with simple tasks such as cooking, dressing themselves or showering – you are their caregiver.

For some people, the role happens quite suddenly. Whatever your situation, we’ve got lots of advice and resources to help you navigate the challenges of becoming a new caregiver. Here we explore what it means to be a caregiver.

Unpaid vs. professional caregivers – what’s the difference?

A caregiver is someone who helps look after the basic caregiving tasks for another person. Care and support could range from assisting someone with mobility to helping them get dressed or looking after their personal hygiene.

Caregivers can also be paid or unpaid. An unpaid caregiver might be a family caregiver such as a partner, friend or neighbor. The arrangement could be temporary or permanent. They also may be caring for someone because of the development of an illness, disability or mental health problem – for example, a daughter caregiving for her elderly father with Alzheimer’s. Voluntary caregivers also look after people un an unpaid, voluntary basis; however, often they do not know the person they are caring for before they start caring for them.

The term professional caregiver covers a variety of paid vocations in care. These include aged care, attendant care, disability support, home care and personal care workers.

A middle-aged woman in her home.

The global state of caregiving

New research1 from TENA reveals that while caregiving is becoming more common across the globe, society has yet to recognise the scale and contribution of family caregivers:

  • More people are becoming caregivers: estimated to increase by 25-50% in the next few years
  • 55% of people say they would struggle balance caregiving with daily life and work
  • 1 in 4 people feel they would not know what to do if they had to care for a loved one
  • 2 in 5 people don’t know where to find support if they become a caregiver

Caring for someone who requires a little assistance

Even if your family member has no mobility issues and completes much of their daily routine independently, they still might need a little help to complete simple day-to-day tasks. Here are a few examples of typical caregiving roles and responsibilities:

Collecting their shopping

Your loved one with low level needs might need a little help with simple things like collecting their grocery shopping from the supermarket or purchasing their incontinence products from the pharmacy.

Helping them stay safe

The person you care for may be quite independent and not need much help. But it’s important to remember that elderly people’s bones are fragile. Even a small accident or fall could injure them and stop them getting about. To help them prevent injuries, try to make their home as safe as possible for them to move around in. Read more in our TENA Home Safety section.

Providing them with companionship

Even in later life, we still love to have our hand held, our back rubbed, or our body hugged warmly. As a caregiver, a big part of your responsibilities is to make the person you care for feel valued and connected.

Helping them with demanding household tasks

People with low-level needs are usually perfectly able to take care of daily tasks in their home, such as surface cleaning. However, you may need to help them with duties that require a more physical exertion, such as garden maintenance, organising high shelves and deep-cleaning the bathroom.

Caring for someone who needs more support

Sometimes our family members may need a little more practical support and care, perhaps due to an ongoing illness or disability. Here are a few examples of caregiving roles and responsibilities for those with medium-level needs:

Providing them with a nutritious diet

You might need to support your family member by making sure they eat good, nutritious meals. This can involve more than just food preparation, as mealtimes are about more than just nourishment. They’re also times for socializing, chatting, sharing stories and having a laugh. Why not invite other family members and friends to eat with the two of you? Socializing helps the people feel connected.

Managing their fluid intake

It is important to make sure the person you care for is adequately hydrated. Overly concentrated urine can irritate the bladder, and dehydration puts them at risk of low blood pressure and a higher risk of falling over. The warning signs of dehydration are dark colored urine, a small volume of urine, dry mouth, dry skin and feeling tired or dizzy. Encourage your family member to drink whenever they’re thirsty. To help them, make sure they drink during mealtimes, offer them social drinks (for example, have a cup of tea together) and prepare them food with a high-water content (such as soup, jelly or fruits, like melon).

If your relative experiences frequent urination at night, try to limit fluid intake 2-4 hours before bedtime.

Encouraging good hygiene

Personal hygiene is important in any daily routine. Perhaps the person you care for can take care of themselves and get washed without your help, or with just a little assistance from you. If so, that’s good! Try to encourage them to keep cleaning themselves, independently, as long as they can. You might like to check now and then, though, to see if they need your help.

Helping them with skincare

As we grow older, our skin ages too. It becomes quite fragile and dry. Elderly people need a special hygiene routine, one designed for their delicate skin. Scratching dry skin can disrupt the skin barrier, leading to infections. Therefore, it’s a good idea to encourage or help your elderly relatives to moisturize the whole body as part of their daily routine. Using a sensitive moisturizer will soften dry skin and maintain its natural pH.

Caring for someone with significant needs

Lots of people across the globe care for a family member with serious or significant needs. For example, you may need to temporarily provide significant assistance to a loved one after a stroke or heart attack, or permanent care if they are disabled or diagnosed with a condition such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. Often, this involves creating a care plan to ensure they are getting full support. Here are some examples of significant caregiving roles and responsibilities:

Helping them with mobility

Is the person you care for unable to stand up and support their own weight? Do they spend most of their time in bed? Do they need you to help them get dressed and cleaned? If they fit any of those descriptions, this means they need a lot of assistance with mobility. The person you’re taking care of might need you to help them get out of bed. This can put a great deal of strain on your back, lifting and moving them. If this applies to you, it’s worth checking our practical tips on safe ergonomics in the home. Helping your relative keep in good shape by helping them get the exercise they need will support them to keep their independence as long as possible.

Providing continence care

Incontinence is a challenging aspect for caregivers, but you don’t have to manage alone. Help is available from many sources including TENA. Your doctor is a good starting point for a referral to your local continence service for assessment, management and advice. You can also check out our hygiene guide for detailed information on providing personal and continence care.

Assisting with perineal skincare

If your loved one experiences incontinence, providing them with the right incontinence protection products, helping them change their products, and removing fecal leakage promptly is key. Gentle perineal skincare will help protect fragile skin from irritation and infection. It’s important that you follow a strict hygiene routine that’s designed to keep delicate perineal skin healthy. It will help them feel clean, comfortable, and refreshed, while also maintaining skin health, which can boost their confidence. For more advice, read our article on how to prevent incontinence related skin irritation and IAD.

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1) TENA global research on attitudes and awareness to family caregiving in the general population. July 2022 Poland, Canada, France, UK, USA. Each country interviewed over 1,000 men and women (18+).