May Is National Arthritis Awareness Month

With the right help, people with joint diseases can remain active and independent.

In-home caregiver helping a client button her shirt sleeve

Today, 25% of adults in the U.S. are living with arthritis, and the chance of developing this painful and debilitating condition increases as we grow older. We never realize how much we use our joints until it's hard to do so! Arthritis makes it difficult to lift a pan from the stove, walk to the car, comb our hair, stoop to pull a weed from our garden, and so many other actions that we once took for granted.

Most of the many types of arthritis cannot be cured, but a variety of treatments and lifestyle choices can reduce pain and disability. Treatment varies depending on the type of arthritis a person has, so a correct diagnosis is the first step. Of the more than 100 types of arthritis, the two most common are:

  • Osteoarthritis, which happens over time as the protective cartilage of our hand, knee, hip or spine wears down.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis, in which a person’s immune system attacks the tissues that line the body’s joints, causing stiffness and swelling of the joints.

Other common types of arthritis include gout, lupus, ankylosing spondylitis and fibromyalgia.

Living with arthritis can set off a cycle of decline in older adults. Pain and stiffness make it harder to get enough exercise, and the resulting inactivity makes the pain and stiffness all the worse. This can cause depression, which increases the perception of pain and makes it even harder to be active.

So it's vital to break that cycle with the right treatments, which might include:

  • Medications to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. The particular medications prescribed depend on the type of arthritis a senior has.
  • Physical therapy to loosen and build up joints and surrounding muscles. This might include exercises, body mechanics training, massage, heat and cold treatments, splinting, and electrical nerve stimulation. Physical therapists also prescribe assistive devices such as walkers and canes, and provide training in their use.
  • Occupational therapy to help patients learn new ways of doing things. Occupational therapists teach patients to perform the activities of daily living in ways that are less difficult and painful; this might include the use of clever adaptations and home modifications, such as a long-handled spoon, zipper pulls, reachers, and a raised toilet seat.
  • Exercise to strengthen muscles and keep the joints strong and mobile. While the doctor might recommend resting the affected joints at certain times, physician-recommended exercise is a top way to manage arthritis.
  • Joint replacement and other surgery to repair or remove damaged tissue. Surgery may be the best choice if arthritis is causing severe pain and loss of joint function.

Support from in-home care

Professional in-home care can be another important resource to help seniors avoid the downward spiral of pain and inactivity. The goal is twofold:

Caregivers help seniors with their regular activities of daily living by providing:

  • Assistance with bathing, dressing, grooming and using the toilet.
  • Transportation.
  • Meal preparation.
  • Light housekeeping, laundry and removal of fall hazards.

Caregivers also help clients manage their arthritis and other health conditions by providing:

In-home caregiver helps client manage medications

Assistance with medical appointments. This can be more complicated than one might imagine! For example, the doctor might order an x-ray at an imaging center, then schedule a follow-up appointment to discuss the results. There might be trips to the pharmacy and sessions with a physical and/or occupational therapist. In-home caregivers help clients keep track of all these appointments, and can provide transportation.

Help with medications. A client might be taking several different prescription and nonprescription medications to manage their arthritis. Arthritis makes it harder to manage other health conditions, and the patient may be taking medications for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or heart disease. Professional caregivers can provide medication reminders, help clients use pillboxes or other organizers, and pick up prescriptions or drive clients to the pharmacy.

Support after joint replacement. Many people assume they would need to recover from hip or knee replacement surgery at a rehabilitation facility. But in March 2019, JAMA noted that with proper support, patients can recover just as well at home. Complying with post-surgical instructions is one of the top predictors of success in these surgeries, and a professional caregiver can make all the difference.

Help with exercise

This item deserves its own section, because study after study shows that exercise is one of the best ways to decrease pain and improve function when a senior has arthritis. In the olden days, doctors thought "taking it easy and resting the joints" was the best advice. But now that thinking has changed. The Arthritis Foundation says that exercise is the most effective nondrug treatment for arthritis. It reduces stiffness in the joints and helps patients maintain a healthy weight; even losing a small amount of weight can be beneficial.

Walking is a great exercise for people with arthritis. The doctor also may prescribe other appropriate, low-impact exercises to improve strength, balance, range-of-motion and endurance. But beginning an exercise program can be challenging when a person has arthritis. Some movements may cause some discomfort and uncertainty, tempting a senior to head right back to the couch!

Research shows that people with arthritis are more likely to exercise if they're confident they are doing it correctly. Their healthcare providers can provide guidance, and having a professional in-home caregiver nearby can increase confidence. Caregivers accompany clients on walks outdoors. They can play an exercise video, and set up weights and other equipment. They can transport clients to an arthritis-friendly exercise class — even chair yoga has been found to be beneficial.

At first, seniors might resist hiring in-home care, thinking it might interfere with their independence. But they usually find that the opposite is true. Having a professional in-home caregiver enhances independence. Family caregivers benefit, too.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about your own diagnosis, treatment and wellness regimen.

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Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.