Raise your hand if you dread laundry day. Or if the thought of scrubbing your bathtub makes you feel anxious. When you have osteoarthritis or inflammatory arthritis, the daily and weekly chores everyone finds annoying can feel even more burdensome, and in some cases, near impossible.
“It’s the hand pain and hand weakness,” says Carole Dodge, OT, CHT, an occupational therapist for 39 years, of the biggest issues she sees with her clients. “In order to help people take better care of themselves, we work on teaching ‘joint-protective’ techniques that can make routine tasks like cleaning easier.”
Here, we asked Dodge for her best trade secrets and polled our CreakyJoints Facebook community for advice on how to make household chores less of a hassle for people with arthritis.
1. Start with a plan.
“When it comes to any household chore, create a plan by writing down everything you need to do in a week and then spread it out in a realistic manner,” says Dodge, who treats patients and oversees occupational therapy outpatient clinics at the University of Michigan Health System. For example, if you usually need to do four loads of laundry a week, break it up so you do about a load every other day.
This tip works for Mary Ripp, who swears by sticking to a schedule. “Every Saturday I wash bed stuff and sweep floors; every Sunday [wash] couch blankets [we have dogs], vacuum and mop floors and clean the bathroom. I do most of my big cleaning on weekends since I work full time as well.”
2. Break up chores to make them more manageable
Doing the same activity for a long stretch of time — say, vacuuming your entire house — isn’t a joint-friendly way to approach cleaning. It forces you to use the same joints and muscles over and over, which can increase discomfort and pain. Instead, break down tasks and intersperse them with others. So maybe you vacuum one room, then empty your dishwasher, then vacuum another room, then fold a pile of laundry.
That’s a strategy that Kay Boucker finds useful: “Break [tasks] down into bite-size chunks and take micro rests,” she says.
3. Clean more frequently
This might sound counterintuitive, but you’re better off cleaning a little bit every day or so than letting things build up, says Dodge. Wiping down your kitchen counters every day takes less effort — and puts less strain on your joints — than having to scrub away dried-up gunk and grime that’s accumulated over a few days.
“I do laundry as it accumulates and take care of it as soon as it comes out of the dryer so I am not faced with mounds of laundry,” says Ivanna Schunk.
Patient Tegan Bonham coins this helpful approach “interval cleaning.” She’ll use the few minutes while waiting for the tea kettle to boil or the microwave to heat something up to do something useful like emptying the dishwasher. “While watching the kids in the bath, take a few minutes to wipe down the counter or clean the mirror,” she suggests.
4. Invest in the right tools
“Buy tools to ease the burden,” recommends arthritis patient Nancy Hopper Matthews. Dodge agrees; she’s seen people who’ve switched to using a Roomba vacuum, which cleans your house on its own, and loved it. Lightweight mops and vacuum cleaners are a smart splurge because they will be less heavy to drag from room to room.
But there are many products that can simplify cleaning in all sorts of ways — and price points. Good “tools” don’t necessarily have to be costly, Dodge notes. “Even using a cleaning product like Scrubbing Bubbles in your toilet helps loosen the dirt better so it’s less work for you,” she says. Other helpful items include dusting mitts like these or these that can make that chore easier on your hands, since wearing a mitt uses less hand strength than gripping a dust cloth does. “Attach dusters to your hands and feet during a bad flare,” says Shelley Tyson. “You can wipe up a lot of dust when shuffling or crawling.”
Get cleaning brushes with long handles (like this one or this one) so you don’t need to bend over as much. “Find something with a long arm for cleaning the tub so you don’t have to get on your knees and crouch over,” says Stephanie Darrow.
5. Lighten your load (literally)
Lifting heavy items can put way too much strain on your joints, so look for ways to swap out heavy things for lighter ones. Instead of using a big bottle of laundry detergent, switch to detergent pods. Or use Brenda Kleinsasser’s tip: “Definitely put your cleaning items, such as laundry soap, into smaller bottles. Much easier to handle and not so heavy, when you are walking stairs with your laundry basket full of clothes.”
Another tip: Don’t do a laundry load of all large heavy things, such as towels; rather mix a towel or two into loads of lighter items.
Nancy Kaplan keeps countertop appliances in her kitchen, such her slow cooker and coffee maker, on cloths so it’s easier to slide things around instead of lifting them. She also put floor gliders under her dining room table and heavy furniture, so it’s easier to move things for vacuuming or sweeping. (Note: Adding these under furniture can be very challenging, so look for help. Do not attempt to lift heavy furniture alone, or at all.)
6. Make friends with a wheeled chair
“Thank goodness for office chairs,” says Nancy Kaplan. She uses one as a makeshift pushcart around her apartment. On laundry days, for example she sets the basket on the chair to transport it to and from the laundry room.
7. Minimize your stair usage
If you live in a place with an upstairs and downstairs, create two sets of cleaning products so you don’t have to drag your most commonly used items from floor to floor. Claire Cotton even got a second vacuum so she keeps one upstairs and the other downstairs.
8. Enlist help
If you live with family members or roomates, figure out how everyone can do their fair share. The CJ Facebook member Mothering with RA says, “husband carries the laundry basket up and down the stairs. Kids know how to put away the laundry, fill the dishwasher, and wash the bathrooms. I hire [help] once a month to get all the corners that are missed because I must conserve energy.”
9. Relish the chores you actually like
Believe it or not, some household chores may actually help your arthritis feel better. “I do dishes a lot as the hot water feels wonderful on my hands,” says Debra Meilahn.
10. And make the sucky ones more fun
“Listen to great music to distract your mind from pain or frustration,” suggests Kay Boucker.
11. Don’t be afraid to get rid of items that no longer work for you
Embrace your inner Marie Kondo and ditch household items that no longer work for your arthritis lifestyle. Nancy Kaplan replaced her ceramic dishes with melamine ones — “I needed lighter dishes that could handle sliding out of my hands.” Gwenne McCarter ditched heavy cast iron pans and pyrex dishes.
12. Learn to let go
Nearly everyone in our Facebook community expressed similar sentiments: Don’t feel guilty or bad if you can’t maintain your house quite as neatly as before. “You can’t do everything in one day,” says Cheryl Pekuri Wright. “Don’t guilt yourself in trying to do it all.” Gwenne McCarter has learned that on bad flare days she can’t push herself. “I don’t do much at all and I’ve learned not to feel guilty about it. We can only do what we can do.”