Caring for Seniors with Arthritis

Advice for families and caregivers

Arthritis means joint inflammation and refers to over 100 different diseases of the joints. These diseases are chronic and cause swelling and sometimes pain and heat in the joints, resulting in reduced mobility. More than 50 percent of seniors 65 and older have one specific form of arthritis, osteoarthritis, in at least one joint.

Q&A for Seniors and Arthritis
What can I suggest that will help my parent who has arthritis to feel better?

Here are some thoughts:

  • Some people find relief in applying either heat or cold, or both, sequentially. Your parent can try to see if either heat or cold, or both, helps.
  • Heat can be applied with a warm pack, a warm bath, Jacuzzi or whirlpool, electric heating pad or blanket, warm lamp, or hydrocollator pack, all of which help relax the muscles.
  • Other ways of making things warm and soothing are to use flannel sheets, heat up clothes in the dryer for a minute or two before putting them on, or use hot water bottles on the sore areas.
  • For people who have morning stiffness, using a heating pad before they get up can help. Or they can take a warm shower when they first get out of bed.
  • Cold, which helps numb the painful area, can be applied with an ice pack. It can be helpful for especially painful and swollen joints.
  • Apply either heat or cold for only 15 minutes at a time.
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My parent's doctor prescribed exercise for arthritis. Won't that make things worse?

Actually, doing the correct exercises for the specific kind of arthritis your parent has can help him or her to feel better over time.

  • Your parent should only exercise as much as his or her doctor orders, and it is best if done with a physical therapist specially trained to work with arthritis patients.
  • Moving the joints will help reduce stiffness, which will ultimately make your parent more comfortable.
  • If your parent exercises properly, building gradually and also protecting swollen joints, his or her pain, fatigue and stiffness will all improve. But if your parent doesn't exercise, then it is possible his or her joints can deteriorate and become so stiff that it will be difficult to move.
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Why does losing weight help arthritis patients?

Excess weight puts more pressure on joints, causing more pain. That is why losing weight can help and is another reason why exercise is important for arthritis patients, as exercise helps with weight control.

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Can exercising in a pool be helpful for people with arthritis?

Yes, water eases the stress on joints and makes exercising -- especially stretching and aerobics -- less painful for arthritis patients, reduces their chronic pain, and improves the ability to move more easily.

So one way you can help your parent is to facilitate getting him or her to a pool where they have exercise programs for people with arthritis. Make sure the water in the pool is warm enough, so your parent doesn't get chilled.

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Why did my parent's arthritis symptoms worsen after exercising?

In general it is good to exercise, but that if your parent has pain that persists for two hours or more after exercise, then he or she has done too much and needs to cut back.

After a worsening of symptoms, your parent should only do very gentle exercises that work on range of motion. He or she can gradually progress and slowly add a few more exercises if things are going well.

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Are there things my parent who has arthritis should not do when exercising?

Here are some guidelines:

  • Your parent should in general move in ways that reduce stress on joints and avoid staying in one position that puts weight on joints.
  • If your parent gets too tired when exercising, then he or she should stop.
  • Your parent needs to learn when to stop and rest by paying attention to his or her body, as well as how to move while also saving energy.

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Are there any devices that can help my parent who has arthritis?

Yes, there are many devices that can be helpful. Some help pull zippers, others help to button a shirt, and still others can help open jars or extend a person's reach, thereby putting less stress on joints. Talk to your parent's doctor about the possibility of using these devices and where to get them, or you can look on the internet at:

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Does my parent need to rethink the way he lives life since being diagnosed with arthritis?

This depends on how severe the disease is. If it is very pervasive and limiting, your parent needs to plan ahead or organize his or her life in ways that save energy and movement.

  • Your parent can think about bundling activities -- going out to one area at a time and getting things done in all the places in that area while she is there.
  • Similarly, your parent could try to use whatever muscles are largest and strongest, rather than smaller, weaker ones. One example is to carry things with a shoulder bag, as opposed to by hand, as the shoulder bag would use stronger and larger muscles.
  • Also, your parent can learn to ask for help when necessary. This might be difficult to do, but with practice should become easier.
  • Finally, if the disease is severe your parent could consider getting a handicapped parking sticker. These can be obtained from your state's registry of motor vehicles and the application usually requires a doctor's signature. Having a handicapped sticker would ensure that your parent could always park close to the entrance of the building he or she is going to and might enable your parent to get out more.
  • Of course, many communities provide rides for seniors, which would be another option, as would taking a cab or getting a ride from a friend, relative, or caregiver.
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Should my parent who has arthritis rest after each activity, despite not being tired?

Yes, resting after each activity will help your parent's body to heal from that activity before doing something else. And if your parent feels pain lasting for two hours or more after doing something, then he or she should do less of it in the future, to avoid the pain.

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Why does my parent who has arthritis constantly need to change positions?

Any one position puts weight on certain joints. That is why frequent changes of position are generally recommended for arthritis patients.

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What can I do to help my parent who has arthritis cope with pain?

People who are in pain experience both physical and emotional stress, and stress causes muscles to tighten, which then increases the pain. So, in addition to taking whatever pain medication is recommended by your parent's physician, activities that relax him or her can also help relieve pain. Here are some guidelines:

  • Relaxation techniques are most helpful if used before pain becomes too severe.
  • A wide variety of activities can produce relaxation, and your parent should explore them and find the one that fits his or her personality best. Some relaxation options include visualization; prayer; meditation; focusing on relaxing each part of the body in sequence, often accompanied by a tape; and focusing on tightening and then relaxing each part of the body in sequence.
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Are there any support groups for people with arthritis?

There are arthritis support groups throughout the country. To find one in your area, go to website at The Arthritis Foundation, email, or call 1-800-568-4045.

Another option for your parent is to contact a pain support group. For online chronic pain support groups, try, chronic-pain/forums, or

For those who want to learn more about living with their condition from other patients, blogs and forums sponsored by The Arthritis Foundation may be helpful. These can be found at:, and

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How do I go about finding a caregiver for my parent who has arthritis? is a website that lists people throughout the United States who provide care to seniors, includes photos and descriptions of their experience, and does free background checks for members. You can search by zip code. For specific listings, go to:

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