Shirley Wallace was only 15 when she was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis (PsA). At first, everyone, including her doctors, thought her aching joints were just a matter of “growing pains.” But soon, a rheumatologist in Syracuse, New York, broke the news to her family, saying she’d be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. The girl looked at her father and saw his eyes fill with tears.
“Don’t worry, Dad, I’ll beat this thing.” That was Wallace’s promise to her father – and to herself. It’s a commitment she has been able to keep, with the help of excellent care, a strong constitution and a personality that won’t quit.
Wallace, now 46, and definitely not in a wheelchair, grew up on a farm in a small town called Mexico, New York. There was always plenty of fresh food around, she recalls. The little girl bonded with her father over baking bread, making soup and roasting venison. “I remember him standing me up on a sturdy kitchen chair so I could do little things to help him.” Wallace’s father passed away when she was only 21, but her promise to him is still alive and well, in the kitchen and in every other part of her life.
She says there weren’t many “special needs” utensils around when she was growing up. If she wanted to do something, she’d have to adapt and find a way. “I guess I’m ‘old school,” she says. “I make do with what I have.”
Wallace’s go-to tips for taming her kitchen
- For an easier grip, use foam insulation to fatten the handles of cooking utensils such as carrot peelers and apple corers.
- To drain pasta, slip on potholders that cover your hands and forearms. Then, use your forearms to empty the pot into the colander.
- Buy bakeware that has handles coming straight out instead of up. That makes it much easier to lift a cake or casserole out of the oven and onto the counter.
- Make your Tupperware work overtime. You can lift a big Tupperware of homemade stuffing and carry it to the table, even when it’s full to the brim.
- Use a serrated knife to securely hold a vegetable, like a potato, and use another knife to slice it.
(Meet Shirley in a mini-documentary about her life with PsA: A Fighting Promise.)
An occupational therapist weighs in
Wallace has intuitively adopted some of the most important tenets of joint protection, principles that Carole Dodge strives to impart to her clients with inflammatory joint diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and PsA.
A certified hand specialist and occupational therapist at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor, Dodge emphasizes the need to transfer stress from the wrist and fingers up the arm. “I help train people to spare their wrists and hands by using their larger muscles to do the things they have to do – or love to do,” she says.
Wallace’s use of extra-long potholders, often sold as barbecue mitts, is a great example of a stress-shifting technique. Some of Dodge’s trusted tools and tips are low-tech and resourceful while others are more sophisticated, requiring a bigger budget. “You know what you need and what you can afford,” she says. “The trick is to develop your own common-sense shortcuts – and to be open to change.”
Dodge also points clients toward ergonomically designed kitchen tools, such as the Oxo Good Grips line of products. They offer a larger grip surface, Dodge explains, meaning that the utensil doesn’t take as much force to use as a conventional one. An electric jar opener, too, is a must-have for the PsA-friendly kitchen.
Dodge’s joint-protecting techniques
- Upgrade to lighter-weight cookware.
- Instead of pouring contents of a pot into a serving bowl, ladle food directly onto plates in the kitchen.
- Invest in a rolling cart. Place loaded plates on the cart and wheel it to the dining room. After you eat, wheel everything back to the dishwasher.
- Dice like a pro with a mini-chopper or food processor.
- Buy pre-cut fruits and vegetables at the market; in a pinch, snag what you need from the salad bar.
- Avoid standing for long stretches. Sit on a barstool and substitute an ironing board for a countertop. Lower it to the right height, and you’re good to go.
When you cook for a living
Brandi Brewer, a self-described “nanny-plus,” has also incorporated many of Dodge’s recommendations into her job. Her job is half child care, half shopping and cooking. “On average, I cook 11 or 12 meals a week, while caring for an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old. When they’re at school, I also tidy the house and make the beds.” That’s a lot of hours on her feet – some of them spent on a hard kitchen floor. To ease the pressure on her back and hips, she uses a soft, cushiony kitchen mat.
Brewer, 45, who lives and works in Kansas City, Missouri, was diagnosed with PsA just five years ago (more than 20 years after developing psoriasis). Since then, she has cut back on her weekly work hours from 40 to 30. Aware that she needs more rest nowadays, she foresees cutting back even more next year. But for now, she’s doing well, with a little help from her favorite kitchen tools.
Brewer uses a mini-chopper and an electric jar-opener, just as Dodge advises, but she also has her own tried-and-true kitchen helpers that have seen her through 16 years of cooking for families.
“My number-one item is a high-quality, extra-sharp chef’s knife,” she says. “That allows me to cut right through an uncooked spaghetti squash without missing a beat.”
Brewer’s A-list of kitchen utensils
- A sturdy wooden cutting board with rubber grips on the bottom
- A sharp Y-peeler with wide handles
- Kitchen shears, mainly for cutting hard-to-open\ plastic bags
- A vegetable spiralizer
- A food processor with slicer blades for shredding meat or chicken
- A KitchenAid mixer with a paddle attachment
But with all the tools and techniques in the world, there’s no substitute for smart, proactive self-care, says Brewer: “If my hands hurt when I get up in the morning, I take an anti-inflammatory right away. And at the end of the day, I soak in Epsom salts and rub in cream wherever I hurt. Mainly, I try to get enough sleep. That’s the most important thing I can do for myself.”
Dodge agrees that self-care is vital. If you have PsA, she says, know your body. Know its limits. And know what it needs in the kitchen and beyond so that you can do everything on your to-do list, including whipping up a gourmet meal – or whatever your passion happens to be.
Tonia Tomlin’s kitchen could easily win awards for its beauty, efficiency and organization. That’s no accident. Tomlin is a professional home organizer who runs Sorted Out, a Dallas-based company. “We work with people with many types of disabilities,” says Tomlin, who draws heavily on her own experience to find ways to help others: She has PsA herself.
“Start by having everything you need at hip level,” she says, “including your counter. Also consider buying pull-out drawer inserts that free you from having to reach into a drawer to get what you need.” Find them and other ergonomic kitchen products at Revashelf, she suggests.
Tomlin’s guidelines for a clutter-free kitchen
- Reserve counter space for only your top three or four items.
- Put Lazy Susans in the pantry for spices, oils, vinegars and other non-refrigerated items.
- Stash lids in one place with a pull-out organizer.
- Opt for clear storage containers with a push-button opener on top to avoid struggling with lids. Bonus: The containers will keep tea, coffee, flour, sugar and other non-perishables fresh.
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