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Tips for Managing Arthritis in Older Adults (CA Version)

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While arthritis is common among older adults, it is not a normal part of aging. Arthritis refers to more than 100 different diseases that cause pain, swelling and limited movement in joints or other parts of the musculoskeletal system. Arthritis impacts 54 million adults today and that number is expected to grow to 78 million by 2040.

Often times older adults and family caregivers assume that arthritis is a normal part of aging and therefore do not always report symptoms to the older adult’s healthcare provider. However, there are many different ways to treat arthritis that can help improve quality of life.

There are over 100 different types of arthritis with Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis being the most common amongst older adults.

Osteoarthritis (OA)

Osteoarthritis is the result of the breakdown of joint cartilage. OA can occur in any joint, but most often affects the hands and weight-bearing joints such as the knee, hip and spinal joints. The OA symptoms often develop slowly and worsen over time.

Symptoms range from mild to severe and include:

  • Aching
  • Painful and stiff joints
  • Swelling and problems moving the joint, especially after prolonged times of inactivity

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the joints. This creates inflammation that causes the tissue lining the inside of joints to thicken.

Symptoms:

  • Swelling
  • Pain in and around the joints
  • Joints that feel warm to touch
  • Decreased range of motion

The key to successfully managing and treating arthritis is early diagnosis. A diagnosis is based on the overall pattern of symptoms, the person’s medical history, a physical exam and imaging studies. An older adult’s primary healthcare provider is likely to refer to an arthritis specialist -- a Rheumatologist. Rheumatologists will work with the older adult to develop an individualized treatment plan that may involve medication and other non-pharmacologic treatments.

Tips for Family caregivers to help manage an older adult’s arthritis:

  • Listen and be empathetic. Take their concerns seriously and communicate with them to their healthcare provider, especially if there hasn’t been a diagnosis and symptoms are present.
  • Keep a journal of symptoms. Family caregivers can help track when and where pain occurs. They can also help to track medications taken, foods eaten and activity or movement. This information can help identify patterns and provide valuable information to healthcare professionals.
  • Communicate with healthcare providers. Often multiple healthcare providers care for older adults. The family caregiver can help keep communication consistent amongst all which helps ensure everyone is on the same page and the person with arthritis is getting the medical care needed.
    • Encourage movement and regular exercise. Seek out exercise or movement classes. Even small amounts of movement throughout the day can add up and make a significant difference. Some ideas include laps around the house (indoors and outdoors), chair exercises and stretching. Be sure to consult the older adult’s healthcare provider before introducing exercise into the routine.
    • Assist with medication and treatment management. Arthritis is often treatable with medication and other remedies. Family caregivers can help ensure the treatment plans are being followed. Below are additional tips for medication management:
      • Ask the pharmacist for an upside-down cap.
      • Use a pill popper device for over-the-counter medications that come in foil packaging.
      • Look into a prepackaged medication management system that has easy to open packaging such as Simple Meds.
    • Assist with a well-balanced diet. For some people, the food they eat can impact their arthritis. Caregivers can prepare arthritis-friendly foods for their aging loved one and encourage them to eat a well-balanced diet. Learn more about arthritis diets.
  • Encourage weight loss if needed. Family caregivers can assist their loved one in managing their weight. Excess weight can cause additional strain on weight-bearing joints such as hips and knees. Reduce body weight if needed and consult with a doctor about weight loss. Even a ten percent reduction can be helpful.
  • Hire professional help. It is important for family caregivers to help their loved one maintain as much independence as possible. For some, it can be helpful to enlist the assistance of a professional. An Occupational Therapist can offer ideas to remain independent and keep as much functionality as possible. Professional home care can assist with tasks that are more challenging due to arthritis such as meal preparation, light housekeeping and medication management.
  • Remain positive. Arthritis symptoms can sometimes cause an older adult to be discouraged by what they can no longer do. Family caregivers should remain positive and keep the focus on what their loved one can still do.
  • Find creative solutions. There are many arthritis-friendly products that can make life easier. Below are some examples of creative solutions for various parts of the daily routine:
  • Cooking
    • Foam handles and arthritis-friendly utensils.
    • Sit while chopping and preparing foods to reduce fatigue.
    • Use adaptive cutting boards to stabilize foods.
    • Utilize a crockpot for easy one pot meals.
    • Hire a home care company to assist with advanced meal preparation.
    • For boiling foods, utilize portion control strainers that can be left in the pot while cooking and that drain the water when the strainer is lifted out. This eliminates the need to carry a boiling pot of water to the sink.
  • Dressing and grooming
    • Install grab bars in shower, bathtub and around the toilet.
    • Toilet seat risers can help reduce the effort needed to sit down and stand up.
    • Automatic dispensers or pumps for grooming products help reduce the need to squeeze bottles.
    • Seek out adaptive grooming products with special grips and handles.
    • Button hooks can help with small buttons or velcro can be used to replace buttons all together.
    • Sock aids and long-handled shoehorns can help with footwear.
  • Recreation
    • Card and game holders can help reduce fatigue while playing.
    • Gripping tools on small items (ex: tennis ball on paint brush) can help maintain independence.
    • Adaptive gardening tools can help make gardening more accessible.

To learn more about managing arthritis and older adults, you can watch this webinar and senior care professionals can earn a free Continuing Education (CE) credit.* For more information and tips for living with arthritis, visit www.caregiverstress.com or https://arthritis.ca. For more about home care services and to find a local home care provider visit www.HomeInstead.ca.

All information, content, and material of this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to serve as a substitute for the consultation, diagnosis, and/or medical treatment of a qualified physician or healthcare provider. Should any reader have any health care related questions consult with your physician or heath care provider immediately.

*CE credits are only available for 60 days following the live webinar event.

Author: Lakelyn Hogan, MA, MBA, Gerontologist and Caregiver Advocate, Home Instead Senior Care

Last revised: June 10, 2019

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