As we reach middle age and beyond, most of us have some degree of osteoarthritis (OA) – pain and stiffness caused by the breakdown of cartilage that normally cushions our joints. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 27 million people in the United States have OA and that number is expected to grow to 40 million by 2020.
While OA, often simply referred to as arthritis, can affect almost any joint, for many people, the joints in the hands are hit the hardest. As a result, gripping, grabbing and holding objects with one’s hands can be difficult. OA of the hands and other problems, including strokes and neuropathy (nerve damage), can affect one’s ability to do many normal daily tasks like dressing, combing hair, preparing foods and engaging in hobbies.
There are simple and low-cost modifications you and your aging loved ones can do to make these activities easier on sore, stiff or less-than-nimble hands. Try a few of the following tips to help foster your parent’s independence – you might just be surprised how much easier they make every day tasks!
Build it up. In order to make handles of products easier to hold, build them up with materials you have at your disposal. Electrical or adhesive tape will work for the handles of most hairbrushes, pots and pans and small gardening tools. Those sponge curlers your mom used when she was younger work great over the handles of silverware, toothbrushes, small paintbrushes, pencils, etc. You can also purchase pipe tubing from your local hardware store. This material will slide easily over any utensils or items that have a handle, making the handle easier to grip. The neoprene in the tubing will also help prevent the item from slipping out of your parent’s hands if they’re wet. It’s also very pliable, and therefore easier to use if you’re dealing with a variety of different handle sizes.
Get rid of the barriers. If your parent has trouble buttoning clothing, encourage him or her to buy clothes that pull over, pull up or zip. For blouses and shirts already in the closet, remove the buttons and sew up the buttonholes. Then sew the button over the buttonhole so that it shows on the front of the garment. Finally, sew Velcro squares beneath the buttons. To make zippers easier to zip, place a thin loop of fabric or yarn through the hole and tie the two ends together. That way your loved one can more easily pull the zipper up by placing a finger through the loop, eliminating the need to grip the tiny metal zipper. If your parent is in a hurry to get dressed and you don’t have a loop of string handy, try a large safety pin. If he or she is buying new clothes this popular “popover shirt” from J. Crew looks very much like a traditional oxford shirt, but it’s much easier to put on for someone with OA.
Help your parent use the strongest muscles. If your parent has difficulty opening drawers, cabinets or even the refrigerator door, try placing fabric loops through drawer pulls and door handles. When your loved one is ready to open them, he or she can place a hand and arm through the loop and pull with the forearm. Traditional bandanas are a great resource, and they are both strong and washable. Anyone suffering from sore joints in the hands should also be using lightweight dishes. The stoneware your mother got as a wedding gift may be a little hard to carry now! Help save her hand joints by getting her some lightweight dishes – plastic works great and won’t break even if it’s dropped.
Look for texture and spare the fingers. When shopping for glassware or items with handles, look for texture. Bumpy, rigid, rough or rubberized surfaces are usually easier to grip than slick ones – look for textured tumblers. The same items can be useful to help prevent slipping and breaking if their hands are wet or they’ve just applied lotion. If typing or pressing the buttons on a phone or microwave is difficult, suggest your parent use the eraser end of a pencil to do the job. If you want to make phone calls super easy, VTech has a line of phones and communications devices called CareLine that is very senior-friendly with large buttons, Voice Announce® Caller ID and one-button emergency calling through a wearable pendant. If your parent uses a computer for email or letter writing, voice recognition software can also enable him or her to compose copy without having to key it in.
Open up and go topless. If your parent has difficulty opening plastic or cellophane packages such as the kind crackers, cereal or sandwich meats come in, open the packages yourself and transfer the contents into a “zipable” plastic bag or plastic container so that your parent can open and close it easily when he or she is ready to use the product. For pretzels or chips, open the bag, fold down the top and close it with a chip clip that is readily available at supermarkets and discount stores. Removing the top from spray deodorant, shaving cream, hair spray and aerosol cleaning products, such as bathroom cleaner or furniture polish, can be difficult for anyone. If your parent uses these products, remove the tops and store the cans “topless.” Another option is to purchase non-aerosol products such as roll-on or stick deodorant, pump hairspray or pre-treated dusting or disinfecting wipes.
Think small. Economy-size jugs of milk, laundry detergent or bottles of dish liquid may cost less than getting the equivalent amount in several smaller containers, but when gripping (and lifting) is a problem, smaller packages may be a better idea. When shopping for your parent, look for small easy-to-grip containers. If he or she insists on large packages to save money, transfer the contents to smaller containers when you get the groceries home. Also pick easy-to-open bottles. If there are no children in the home, forego the childproof prescription bottles, which can be hard on stiff hands and sore joints. Also, ask the pharmacist to put prescriptions in an easy-to-open medication dispenser.
Putting a few – or all – of these tips into place will help keep your parent or loved one more independent and comfortable with OA, which might even make your life easier as well!