As time passes, people may realize that everyday tasks are becoming more difficult. These everyday tasks may be more difficult as the result of decreased strength, decreased balance, or pain caused by arthritis/degenerative joint disease or other medical conditions. Some of these tasks can be avoided or performed with assistance, but others are necessary to a person’s health and well-being, and if not performed, can lead to a decline in health.
One such task is that of preparing food. Eating nutritious meals on a regular basis helps people to maintain health, to prevent illness, to maintain and/or build strength, and to encourage healing. Approximately 1 in 7 elders is at risk of hunger in the United States(1), due to economic or other reasons. If an older adult is having difficulty functioning in the kitchen, he or she is at risk for malnutrition. Fortunately, Physical Therapy can assist in maintaining or regaining one’s ability to function independently and safely in the kitchen.
Grip strength is important for pulling open the refrigerator door, for opening jars, and for grasping pots, pans, cups, and utensils. A physical or occupational therapist can assess a person’s grip strength, upper extremity strength, and upper extremity range of motion to determine the exact cause of the difficulty with grasping. An individualized program would be developed to address any impairments, and a home program would be assigned. Home exercises to improve grip strength include squeezing a soft object (such as a balled-up sock, a foam ball, or putty) with as much force as possible.
Many kitchen tasks require more general strength, such as lifting and carrying dishes full of food, putting groceries away, and opening and closing heavy oven or refrigerator doors. After a physical therapy assessment, a program would be developed to increase strength in the weak body parts, such as the arms, legs, or trunk.
Balance can affect one’s ability to function in the kitchen, as the process of preparing food and dishes requires reaching, stooping, and turning. A person’s balance can be affected by many factors such as sensation, the vestibular system, decreased response to postural perturbations, or many medications. A physical therapist would assess balance, taking these factors into consideration before beginning treatment.
A physical or occupational therapist can recommend adaptive equipment to facilitate the preparation and consumption of meals. A non-skid material, such as dycem, could be used to open jars. Additionally, there are devices commonly available in stores to assist in opening jars. Reachers can assist in reaching lightweight objects placed on shelves, or to pick up objects from the floor. Adaptive utensils and dishes are also available to assist in cooking and eating. These include utensils with thick handles to aid in grasping, plate guards to prevent foot from being pushed off the edge of the plate, and cups with the side cut out for the nose to help people avoid having to tip their heads back to drink.
Changes to the kitchen will also help to make food preparation and cleanup safer. By storing frequently-used items at or near counter level, the amount of reaching and stooping will be decreased. Storing lightweight items on shelves will help prevent injury if something falls and will enable use of a reacher. Using a wheeled cart to bring pots, pans and dishes to and from the kitchen will help those who lack the strength and/or balance to carry heavy items between rooms.
If you or someone you know is having difficulty in the kitchen, whether the task is cooking, eating, or washing dishes, consult a Physical or Occupational therapist directly to assess one’s individual impairments and to develop an individualized exercise program. Taking advantage of a program such as Meals on Wheels may help, as well. Regardless of the path one chooses, the importance of nutrition and household safety is paramount.
1 Gunderson, C and Ziliak, J. (2012 May). Senior Hunger in America: An Annual Report. National Foundation to End Senior Hunger. Retrieved February 14, 2013 from http://www.mowaa.org/Page.aspx?pid=281