Tips for Caregiving for Someone With RA

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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, inflammatory autoimmune disease that targets the joints and other parts of the body, posing physical and emotional challenges that often interfere with daily life. Many people with RA find it helpful to rely on a trusted source for support with lifestyle modifications.

While research shows that providing care for someone with RA can take a toll on the caregiver's mental health and well-being, proactively arming both parties with knowledge and tools, along with keeping an open mind, can make a big difference in successfully coping with RA.

This article provides an overview of the benefits of a built-in support system for RA patients, and offers tips on caretaker involvement, daily management, and encouragement.

older woman with rheumatoid arthritis receiving care

FG Trade / Getty Images

Benefits of a Caretaker for RA Management

Living with RA can be frustrating and unpredictable—not to mention painful. Taking an active role in managing the condition can also mean asking for help when needed, which can contribute to positive health outcomes.

Research shows that RA healthcare providers often rely on input and observations from caretakers to help inform patient care. For example, a caretaker can let a provider know about the patient's:

  • Ability to perform daily activities 
  • Compliance with medication and the treatment plan
  • Recent emotional state

Other studies suggest that supportive care is such an important determining factor of RA management that the caretaker's reported stress levels are closely linked with the severity of the patient's RA.

Ways to Support Someone Living With RA

RA caregivers can provide a broad range of support, from handling manual tasks and nutritional needs to simply lending an ear when needed.

Physically

Joint pain, swelling, and damage can make it difficult to complete daily physical tasks that once may have been simple, like opening a jar, buttoning a shirt, or lifting a basket of laundry.

A caretaker can assist with functional tasks such as:

  • Cleaning the home or living space
  • Preparing meals
  • Getting dressed and ready for the day
  • Walking or exercising (with or without an assistive device)
  • Grasping items that are out of reach
  • Driving

This type of physical support can be particularly helpful during an RA flare (episodes in which symptoms are particularly intense).

Mentally and Emotionally

Living with a chronic condition like RA can take a heavy mental and emotional toll. That psychological stress can negatively interfere with the immune system. In fact, research suggests that people with RA who report high levels of stress experience more severe flares and symptoms, like pain and fatigue.

A caretaker can help alleviate some of that burden. Healthy two-way communication makes it possible for the patient to share their feelings candidly, while allowing the caretaker to listen and provide constructive support.

Medically

When accessible, medical care and treatment is a big part of keeping RA under control. This can be particularly true when there are comorbidities (the presence of other conditions) like diabetes or heart disease. Caretakers can help:

  • Manage the medication schedule
  • Physically open medications
  • Keep track of appointments with healthcare providers
  • Make trips to the pharmacy

Being involved in RA medical care also allows the caretaker to ask questions and hear directly from healthcare providers or pharmacists. This is particularly useful in situations in which the patient is unable to or uncomfortable with raising their concerns.

Nutrition

While there’s no specific diet for RA, proper nutrition can help manage the painful inflammation that comes with the condition.

Experts believe eating foods high in antioxidants, like plant-based foods, may reduce inflammation. So avoiding or limiting sugar, refined carbohydrates, fried foods, grilled or broiled meat, gluten, preservatives, and alcohol may help keep RA symptoms under control.

If there is access to a nutritionist, the caregiver has an opportunity to learn which foods are best and which to avoid. This supportive input—along with physical assistance—when it comes to nutrition, cooking, and meal planning for RA can give the patient one less thing to think about.

Exercise

Implementing a regular exercise routine is challenging, especially when living with a painful, inflammatory disease.

A caretaker can encourage and even help with exercise, which has been proven to be beneficial for people with different types of arthritis. Ensuring that an RA patient gets their movement in can help keep the joints lubricated, strengthen the surrounding muscles, and maintain functional mobility.

Financially

Managing a chronic condition like RA can be expensive, even for people who have access to health insurance. Some insurance plans may not cover certain RA medications, such as newer biologic drugs or JAK (Janus kinase) inhibitors.

The last thing on a person with RA's mind is how to offset major treatment expenses while dealing with a painful condition. Caretakers may be able to help sort through some of the financial assistance programs available, and provide budgeting input when appropriate.

RA Financial Assistance

Helpful financial resources for eligible RA patients and caretakers include: 

Support Groups

Living with RA is challenging, and whether or not you currently have the support of a caretaker, no one should have to do it alone. Fortunately, there are many platforms available for encouragement, information, and solidarity.

Research has shown that participating in an RA support group can increase a person's quality of life and their understanding of the condition. RA patients looking for extra support might consider checking out the following:

In addition, the Live Yes! Connect Groups platform created by the Arthritis Foundation offers virtual supportive connections for both caregivers and people with RA.

Support for Caretakers

Support is essential for people diagnosed with a chronic health condition, but it's also important that caregivers take care of themselves too. Some caretakers may find it helpful to seek out care-specific support groups, such as:

Caretaker Needs

Whether you’re living with a chronic disease or caring for someone with a chronic disease, taking care of yourself is not selfish. Research shows that caregiver burden can significantly contribute to negative health outcomes. This is why it’s important to remember that self-care should be as much of a priority as caretaking duties. There are several ways to make this happen.

Setting Boundaries

Just as with any relationship, it’s helpful to set clear expectations at the beginning. These boundaries will be important for both parties to honor and respect. They make the caretaking process easier when you take the guesswork out of it.

As a caregiver, when setting boundaries with the person with RA, consider the duties you are willing (and able) to take on, and which you aren’t. Feel free to write these agreements down on paper, and adjust them as necessary.

RA Realities to Remember

RA is not simply a “joint condition.” It’s a chronic (lifelong) disease that often comes with potentially severe symptoms. To understand the unique challenges that a person with RA faces on a daily basis, it’s essential to learn about the disease and understand that RA can look different for every person.

Making Home More Accessible

Protecting the joints is a proven way to manage painful RA symptoms, and help make daily activities easier. Joint protection techniques are recommended to complete functional tasks, while keeping undue stress off the joints and conserving energy.

Some techniques include:

  • Learning proper ways to lift and carry items
  • Using assistive tools
  • Resting to reduce pain and symptoms

People with RA may benefit from a few adjustments at home that a caretaker can help with, such as:

  • Reorganizing rooms to make items more accessible
  • Investing in helpful tools like utensils, gripping gloves, or voice-control technology to make tasks easier
  • Having heat and cold therapy readily available, such as a heating pad or ice pack, to help quickly soothe stiffness and inflammation
  • Keeping the sleeping area accessible, because getting enough quality sleep is key for managing RA

Medication Side Effects

Many RA medications affect the entire body, so they have the potential to cause powerful side effects. It's important for RA patients to visit a healthcare provider regularly to monitor these potential effects, and make changes to treatments as needed.

If a certain medication is causing intolerable side effects for the patient, remember that there are several different options out there, and a healthcare provider can help recommend one that works best and is tolerable.

Therapy Can Provide Daily Relief

Each case of RA is different, and there are several therapies that can help relieve symptoms in people with RA. If accessible, you might consider checking out: 

  • A physical therapist who is knowledgeable in RA can help patients regain strength, mobility, and range of motion. These movement experts are a great resource for learning techniques that can be repeated at home.
  • An occupational therapist can provide the tools, strategies, and "workarounds" to overcome physical barriers in daily life.
  • A psychologist or psychiatrist can help deal with the stress, anxiety, and depression that can come with chronic illness.

In addition, there are other therapeutic treatment options to explore, such as:

  • Mind-body therapies like meditation, biofeedback, and breathing exercises (pranayama) to help manage the body's reaction to pain.
  • Journaling about symptoms, diet, exercise, medication, or your general feelings to provide a mental outlet for disease management.

Educate Yourself

There are many different assumptions and misconceptions about RA, which is why it's important to take time to educate yourself on the condition. For example:

  • RA can affect the entire body, not just the joints.
  • RA can affect any adult, regardless of gender or ethnicity.
  • RA symptoms can vary by person, and they're not always visible.
  • RA can be a debilitating disease, but it's still possible to live a normal, productive life.

Summary

Receiving regular care from a trusted friend or family member can help overcome some of the physical and emotional challenges of living with RA. Caretakers can provide encouragement and be involved in the daily management of RA symptoms, like helping with medical appointments or lending a hand around the house.

While research shows that caretaking can impact a person's mental health and well-being, the benefits of having a supportive relationship between caregiver and patient can help lead to a more positive outlook for everyone involved.

A Word From Verywell

Caring for a friend or loved one with RA can be a challenging yet fulfilling experience. While making a positive impact on someone's life and health is always rewarding, be aware that caretaking can also lead to burnout. Patients and caretakers alike may want to educate themselves on the signs of caregiving burnout and how to cope with it.

For additional live support, information, or referrals specific to RA, you can call the Arthritis Foundation’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-283-7800.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are some gift ideas for people with RA?

    RA can make daily life difficult and painful. Consider thoughtful gifts to help alleviate these issues, such as:

    • Items to relieve physical and mental stress
    • Items to help with everyday tasks
    • Items that provide touch or voice-activated assistance
  • What shouldn't you say to someone with RA?

    The physical symptoms of RA (such as joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and fatigue) are often invisible. It’s important not to make assumptions about how a person with RA is feeling. The best advice is to be a good listener, and show that you're open to learning about the condition.

  • Does living with RA affect life expectancy?

    RA on its own isn’t fatal, but some complications of the disease can potentially shorten a person’s life span. While data show that RA can shorten a person’s life span by an average of 10 years, each individual RA case is unique. People with RA can live into their 80s or 90s, and still lead productive, normal lives.

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