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My Best Coping Strategies and Tools for Activities of Daily Living Since Becoming Disabled

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I have been thinking lately about how far I have come in the last six years. Six years ago, I had just stepped down from the full-time workforce — where I had used my rehabilitation counseling training to assist college students with disabilities. I was busy caring for aging parents and trying to find a flexible way to earn some money part-time.

Then, I fell and broke my right shoulder. After a hard recovery and lots of physical therapy, I was left with a restricted range of motion and some weakness in my dominant arm — as well as chronic pain. I quickly learned to do more tasks with my left hand, and I occasionally needed to ask for help. But I didn’t think of myself as “disabled.”

That is, I didn’t think of myself as “disabled” until three years later — when I fell again as someone came up behind me and ripped my laptop bag off of my shoulder. My first thought when I hit the ground and felt pain in my left shoulder was, “There goes my stronger shoulder — I’m really in trouble now!”

Since then, I have worked with both physical and occupational therapists, and I have probably recovered as much functionality as I ever can. Pain, restricted reach, and weight limitations in two shoulders is much more disabling than in just one. Thus started my journey of being a person with a disability and learning to cope with my shoulder limitations. I’ve learned a lot in the past few years.

Here are some of my coping strategies and tools:

1. I pace myself.

As a rehabilitation counselor, I often discussed the importance of learning to pace yourself. It actually was one of my favorite coping strategies to discuss with students. I still firmly believe that pacing myself is essential to becoming as functional as possible and minimizing my pain. However, the fact that I had such a firm grasp on the importance of pacing made it no easier to learn to pace myself. I had no idea how hard it is to actually figure out the right level of activity for me because I didn’t feel like I was “overdoing it” at the time! It was only afterwards that I would find myself hurting and realize I had done too much. Learning that it wasn’t always a matter of whether I can do something but whether I should do something was a revelation. I have a category of activities I call “things I can do but will pay for later.” Finding that balance of “doing” and resting is a difficult process of trial and error, but it can bring great rewards in the end.

2. I ask for help.

You might be able to relate to the difficulty of asking for help when you are used to being the “helper.” But out of necessity, I have learned to ask for help. I use grocery store pickup services. (No matter how short my grocery list, there is almost always something too high for me to reach — which can strain my shoulders.) I also regularly pay for pedicures because I can’t reach my feet. My neighbor wheels my full trash bins uphill to the curb every week. I even contacted my Area Agency on Aging about their Caring Companions program, and I was matched with a volunteer.

I get frequent visits from out-of-town family who always come to help me. I keep a list of things I want help with the next time my family or my volunteers are here. I think carefully about those “things I can do but will pay for” in deciding whether they can wait or whether I can do them and then allow myself to rest. I typically call my volunteer to schedule a help session when there is something urgent I absolutely cannot do myself, and then we take care of the rest of my list. With help, I am doing what needs to be done.

3. I try to do things another way.

My rehab counseling background really helped me learn to try tasks another way. I immediately got into the mindset of being flexible and looking for other ways to do things. It started in my own rehabilitation when I learned to move my bedside table with my feet. I can hook my feet under the coffee table to get up from the couch without pushing up on my shoulders. I use a pump lotion bottle to squirt in the direction of my dry feet, and then I rub my feet together to spread the lotion around. I also wear shoes I can get into without using my hands as often as possible. When I need to carry something bulky down the stairs, I go backwards and lift it from step to step. I even rearranged my kitchen so that I do not need to use the top shelves.

I also use a variety of tools in my daily life:

  • Wiping tool
  • Reachers
  • Dressing stick

Although we had practiced showering in rehab, I found it more difficult than expected once I got home. I couldn’t quite reach one corner of my hair, so I found a hair scrubber with a handle online. I also buy a bath scrub or loofah on the longest stick I can find.

My favorite tool is my bidet. I wouldn’t say it was essential because I have my wiping tool, and with some effort and discomfort I can reach without it. But it is wonderful to be able to take care of business without being reminded of my shoulder limitations. It was a splurge, but it is so worth it!

I have come a long way. At first, I was overwhelmed with how many special tools I needed. That stress quickly turned to gratitude. With those tools and coping strategies, I am able to live by myself.

Getty image by GrapeImages

Originally published: December 6, 2022
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