Making Housekeeping Easier

by Erica Jacques, OT

A house that cleans itself? It sounds like a dream, but it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. Not everyone has the luxury of hiring a housekeeper, but anyone can have a cleaner home without working any harder. In fact, most people can have a cleaner home by working even less!

As an occupational therapist, my job is to coach my clients toward a greater level of independence in their daily routines. In the hospital, I focus on the basics, such as dressing and bathing. In my outpatient practice, however, I address the bigger issues of managing a household. Many people who are experiencing physical challenges feel frustrated about “letting their houses go” — they simply can’t keep things clean like they used to. Taking care of a home gives many a sense of pride. Chronic conditions such as arthritis, however, may prevent people from achieving all of their home-management goals.

No single cleaning strategy or set of tools works for everyone. But a few simple changes or a new product or two can make the job easier. The three concepts covered in this article are the ones I use most often in the clinic: work simplification, energy conservation, and joint protection.

Work simplification is something that makes a job easier. This can include anything from using specialized equipment to reducing the number of steps in a common task. Using an automatic dishwasher over traditional sink-washing is an example of work simplification.

Energy conservation is budgeting your body’s energy as if it were money. Energy-conservation strategies include taking frequent rest breaks to rebuild your reserves, and using work-simplification techniques to make tasks easier.

Joint protection means minimizing the strain on your joints, especially smaller joints such as those in the hands. An example of joint protection is replacing doorknobs or faucet handles with easy-to-turn levers.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive. In fact, many of the common strategies I teach my patients with arthritis include some combination of the three.

There are a few strategies you should apply to any home-care task. First, monitor your posture for awkward positions throughout the day. It’s one thing to get down on your knees to scrub a tub, but it’s quite another to kneel, twist to the left, and duck under a towel. Find another way! Second, plan your cleaning routine in advance, allowing plenty of time for each task. You don’t want to be halfway through cleaning the toilet and have to stop to get ready for an appointment. Plan around your daily events and you won’t have to leave a job halfway done. And third — a bit of a luxury, but a necessity for some — let go of a few things in your cleaning routine (more about this later).

You may have to test the techniques and products described in this article first to know if they are right for you. Be prepared to try a few different things. Fortunately, many of these suggestions require little to no monetary investment. There are, however, a few more-expensive items on the list. As you read, think about your own home environment and how each idea might apply to you. Start with the easiest (and cheapest!), and work your way up.

Work simplification

Every year, more and more convenience items are designed to make household chores faster and easier. Work-simplification strategies for people with arthritis are often the same ones used by busy homemakers, or people who just don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort cleaning. Here are a few of my favorites, starting with the least expensive:

Swiffer dusters. I’m a big fan of Swiffer dusters. They have well-designed handles, and the refills are fairly inexpensive. One quick sweep and you’re done. If you’re really careful, you don’t even need to move your knick-knacks.

Premoistened cleaning wipes. Premoistened cleaning wipes are great for quick jobs, and they eliminate the need to carry (or repeatedly squeeze the trigger of) a spray bottle. Keep containers or packs of wipes in areas you clean often. Generic or house-brand products are generally cheaper than brand-name wipes.

No-scrub cleansers. No-scrub cleansers, such as those advertised by the talking brushes, allow you to spray and walk away. Read the fine print, however, because some of them may require a wipe or a rinse.

Automatic toilet bowl cleaners. Drop in a tablet and your toilet cleans itself! You may have to do an occasional hand scrubbing, but these tablets eliminate the need for most of your routine cleaning. Automatic shower cleaners are also available. Mounted on your shower wall, a shower cleaner sprays a cleanser at the push of a button, no rinsing required.

One word of caution: If you do spot-clean with these products in place, check the products’ labels to avoid chemical interactions. The mixture of bleach and ammonia is the most notorious — and it is toxic — but mixing any chemicals can create fumes that make it hard or uncomfortable to breathe. When using cleaning products in the bathroom, therefore, open a window or at least turn on the bathroom exhaust fan.

The next few items on the list are a little more expensive but still generally cost less than $100. If you know anyone who has one of these items, arrange a loan with him and try it before you buy it.

The Black & Decker Scumbuster. In addition to its cool name, the Scumbuster has both a long handle and a rotating cleaning brush, which is good for areas that require scrubbing, such as shower floors or bathtubs. It looks a bit like a small paint roller and runs on a rechargeable battery. The handle does vibrate with use, so keep your cleaning sessions short to avoid forearm and wrist fatigue.

A spray mop. Resembling an electric sweeper, a spray mop douses cleanser with the squeeze of a trigger. Rather than wringing out your mop or dragging around a heavy bucket of water, you simply spray and “sweep.” Some even use disposable cleaning covers.

The Shark Portable Steam Pocket. This handheld steamer is light and easy to carry, and the steam trigger is in an ergonomically sound position. The steam disinfects and loosens dirt, which then sticks to the cleaning wand. The cleaning wand covers can be rinsed in the sink or washed in the washing machine. This steamer can be used to clean surfaces in the kitchen or bathroom, and can also be used to steam cloths. You can also get larger steamers, which are designed for cleaning floors, and are about the size and weight of electric brooms. Take care when using a steam cleaner, as the hot steam can burn.

Electric brooms and light vacuums. They aren’t just for carpets. Used on the lowest setting, electric brooms and light vacuums can clean tile, vinyl, and wood. They are often more efficient than a broom, and their handles are often wrist friendly. And no need for a dustpan!

Energy conservation

Most of the energy-conservation techniques I teach involve time and resource management. While these techniques are traditionally used for people with respiratory or chronic fatigue conditions, many of them can also benefit people with chronic pain conditions, such as arthritis. The more tired you are, the more likely you are to feel pain, injure yourself, and feel mentally overwhelmed by your to-do list, including your chores. Energy conservation can make your daily routines less taxing. You can finish your cleaning without exhausting yourself, and maybe even have energy left over to do something fun.

Here are a few simple tips:

Make a cleaning schedule. Rather than clean your entire house over the weekend, plan no more than one task every day. Stick to your schedule as much as possible, and if you miss a day, either move everything back a day, or turn a big job into two smaller jobs that you can add back into your routine. For example, if you miss cleaning the bathroom, clean the mirror and sink one day, and come back for the toilet the next. Resist the urge to play catch-up.

Pace yourself. Don’t rush through a job because you’re running late, or because someone is on their way over. When you panic-clean, you not only use more energy than usual, but you are also more likely to make a mistake or sustain an injury. Don’t risk falling off a ladder because you want to dust your high shelves before your daughter arrives.

Keep similar items together, and near where you usually use them. Most people keep a broom with its dustpan and put their cleaning products under the sink. But why are most hampers so far from the laundry room? If your laundry area is a short walk away from where you usually change your clothes, keep your hamper in the laundry room, and simply deposit your dirty clothing there each day. If you keep your washer and dryer a long walk from where you change your clothes, try placing the hamper at the halfway point so you won’t have to carry a heavy basket any farther than necessary.

In addition, consider keeping a rolling clothing rack next to your dryer, and hang up your clothes as you take them out. When you feel up to it, just roll your clothes wherever they need to go. Keep extra cleaning products in your bathrooms, so you don’t have to trek back and forth from your main cleaning supply.

Outsource. If you have the resources, hire a cleaning service for the biggest jobs: windows, high dusting, floor polishing, and gutter cleaning, to name a few. Some services are willing to come as little as once a month, or even once every other month, for a reasonable fee. In the meantime, spot-clean as needed and ignore the dust on the ceiling fan.

One final thought about energy conservation: Even with the best intentions, who doesn’t go into a cleaning frenzy when someone is coming over to visit? An unexpected guest is enough to send me frantically trying to pick up my daughter’s toys and fold the laundry that is strewn all over the couch. A wise person once told me that when someone who cares about you visits, he really doesn’t care if your lunch dishes are still in the sink. And if he does, why not ask him to lend a hand?

Joint protection

If you’ve had arthritis for some time, you’ve probably heard about joint protection. Joint-protection techniques are designed to minimize wear and tear on your joints and can reduce the rate at which degeneration occurs. In other words, if you change the way you hold, carry, or move when you clean, you may prevent your joints from deteriorating as quickly as they otherwise might.

I like to think of joint protection in terms of position, load, and repetition.

Position. When you clean, a neutral and loose hand is best. Avoid over-gripping, which applies excessive pressure to your fingers and wrists. Avoid ulnar deviation, which is what happens when the pinky side of your hand drifts out toward your wrist. This can occur when you grip something from underneath (for example, when you hold a dinner plate). Look for tools with large, round handles that you grip from above. Some scrub brushes have a handle that extends up, so you can clean with a sawing motion. Oxo’s “good grips” line, which you can buy wherever cleaning products are sold, has several different types of scrubbers that allow the hand to maintain a neutral position. You can also check out the cleaning tools sold in medical supply stores, but they tend to be more expensive.

Load. You can’t avoid lifting altogether, but you can lift and carry in ways that decrease the load on your joints. To carry heavy objects, for example, hold them close to your body: If you have a number of items to carry, such as a bunch of cleaning supplies, place them in a milk crate or a small laundry basket, and rest it against your stomach. Avoid pushing or pulling very heavy items: If your vacuum is huge and heavy, trade it in for a lighter model. When mopping, place your bucket on a plant trivet with castors (meant to make it easier to move large, heavy pots) before you fill it. Slide heavy items rather than carrying them whenever possible: When filling a pot of water for cooking, slide it across the counter to the stove rather than carry it.

Repetition. The more often you do something the same way, the more likely it is to cause problems over time. Tennis players get tennis elbow; teenagers get texting injuries. It doesn’t happen overnight. Over time, repetitive movements can lead to aches and pains that are often hard to trace back to their root causes. Avoid strain by alternating your cleaning hand, changing positions regularly, shifting your weight as you clean, and taking frequent breaks.

A quick word about telescoping handles: While I love long-handled items that reach the floor, such as a grabber or a dustpan, I’m not a fan of those designed to reach up high. For one, they increase the load on your shoulders and forearms as you reach. In addition, they require you to hold your arms up for extended periods of time, which fatigues the surrounding muscles. Finally, you have to extend your neck to see what you are cleaning, placing strain on the vertebrae that support your head.

When you have to reach someplace high, it’s better to stand on a step stool than to reach up with your arms. The key is to get close enough to the task to avoid having to lift your arms above shoulder level. That will help to prevent strain and fatigue.

You know best

In the end, only you know what will work the best for your body and your home environment. Take the advice presented here with a grain of salt, and think about how you can make your own chores easier. Whether it’s a tiny change in position or the purchase of a fancy, new cleaning toy, your joints will thank you and your home may even sparkle.

Last Reviewed December 5, 2013

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Erica Jacques is an occupational therapist at a Level One Trauma Center in Orlando, Florida.

Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.

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