“When you have to do the same task every day or very frequently, the small changes or tools that allow independence become significant,” says Carole Dodge, an occupational therapist with the University of Michigan’s School of Medicine.
You can find hundreds of assistive gadgets at hardware or home goods stores and online. The tools that might be right for you depend on things like where your arthritis is and how bad it is. If you need help narrowing down your options, meet with an occupational therapist (OT) who has experience working with people who have arthritis.
“One of the things that I do when I work with somebody is I find out very specifically the tasks that they find challenging — maybe ones they’re avoiding because they’re painful or ones they cannot do at all and they have to ask somebody for [help],” says Dodge, who’s been an OT for 40 years. “Then we find a tool that’s going to allow them to do that task independently.”
Some of her top recommendations for gadgets and tips around the house are:
Extended-handle tools. These can help you do things like pick up items off the floor, reach objects on high shelves, and dust or clean more easily.
Lightweight appliances. A vacuum or mop that’s easier to move around and carry could cause less stress to your joints.
Touch-activated light switches. These can be gentler on your hands and fingers than regular knobs and switches. Almost any electric appliance can be adapted to be touch-on, touch-off, with an adapter that you buy in the electrical portion of the lighting store.
Lever handles. You can replace door and sink knobs with these, so you can you use your palms rather than grip with your fingers. (If you can’t replace doorknobs, you could buy a turning tool with a handle that helps you grip them more easily — some even help you grip keys.)
Foam pipe insulation. Wrap this around the handle of just about any tool — like utensils, pens, brushes, and kitchen or gardening tools — to grip with less effort and pain. (You could also wrap tool handles with tape or cloth.) You can also buy tools with bigger, wider handles.
Spring-loaded scissors. These can make cutting easier.
Some other tools and tips that might help you in different rooms of your home are:
In your kitchen:
- Pot and pans with two handles might be easier for you to carry. Some rocker knives, which can make slicing easier, are also double-handled.
- Electric appliances — like a can or jar opener, food processor, blender, or dishwasher — can help you save energy and avoid stress to your hands as you do things like twist lids, scrub, mix, and chop.
- If you open jars or mix foods manually, a non-skid gripper mat makes the item less likely to slip out of your hands.
- A bottle brush can help you wash cups and glasses.
- A cart with wheels lets you move heavy items like plates and grocery bags with less need to lift and carry.
In your bedroom:
- Zipper pulls and button hooks are gadgets that help you fasten clothes.
- You can also look for clothes with Velcro fasteners.
- Shoe and sock aids like long-handled shoehorns help you avoid reaching and bending to dress your feet.
In your bathroom:
Remove throw rugs. This is extra important if you use a walker or cane, because they can catch on rug edges.
Improve lighting. Make sure your rooms and any staircases are well lit, especially at night. You can buy small lights that shine on steps at any home store that sells lighting.
Have handrails by steps. You probably have one indoors if your home has a second floor. It’s also a good idea to install a handrail alongside any outdoor steps leading to your home.
Think twice about ladders. Use a stable step stool with a wide base if you need to climb. Ideally it should have a handle to help you balance.
Clean up spills right away. Don’t walk on slick surfaces.
Some other safety measures you could consider are:
- For help getting in and out of the bathtub, use an adjustable transfer bench.
- Install grab bars around bathtubs and toilets.
- Use a raised toilet seat if it’s hard for you to sit or to stand back up.
- Place a rubber suction mat or non-skid strips in the shower or tub.
- Pick up any clutter on the floor.
If your arthritis makes it painful to walk, see a physical therapist (PT). They can find out if you’d benefit from an assistive aid or device that helps you move around more easily — but that’s not all.
“The physical therapist does a very comprehensive evaluation of the patient. They talk about what the patient’s goals are, as well as what they see from a physical assessment. Then they can outline a plan of care for that patient,” says Jan K. Richardson, PhD, PT, professor emeritus at Duke University School of Medicine and chief medical officer of Medical Outcome Indicators in Washington, PA.
Richardson says a physical therapist can help you:
- Have less pain.
- Keep your affected joints working as well as possible.
- Start a customized exercise program for strength, mobility, and overall function.
- Anticipate what your needs might be in the future.
If your PT thinks a mobility device or aid could help you, they might talk to you about one or more of these:
Cane. This can be very effective for someone who wants to ease stress on an affected hip, knee, or foot on one side of the body, Richardson says. You use the cane on the opposite side of the arthritic joint.
Let your physical therapist know if you have a systemic type of arthritis like RA and your hands are affected. Unloading your weight on a cane could cause a flare in your hand, Richardson says.
Crutches. These are the next step up from a cane, Richardson says. Some people only need one crutch, while others use two.
“When people think of crutches, oftentimes they think of the wooden ones that you get from the hospital when you have a broken bone,” she says. “But there are also crutches called lofstrand crutches, which are really forearm crutches — so they don’t go underneath your arms. There’s a cuff that’s around your forearm. Then your hand is on a handle like a cane would be, but there’s much greater stability.”
Walker. This two-handed device would be the next step up from crutches, Richardson says. A walker might help someone who has joint problems on both sides of their lower body and trouble balancing. A physical therapist can adapt a walker to put less stress and tension on your shoulders, elbows, hands, and wrists.
Knee brace. There are several types for knee arthritis. Your physical therapist might recommend one to:
- Align your knee
- Ease pain
- Help you heal from knee surgery
- Offer a feeling of support that makes you feel more at ease
Air splint. This compression device can keep your ankle from flexing or rolling. “People who sprain their ankles wear these often, but they’re also very effective if you’ve got [an arthritis] flare of your ankle,” Richardson says.
Orthopedic shoes. These customized shoes may be a more supportive option if you start to have a lot of deformities of your feet or toes due to arthritis, Richardson says.