Looking After a Loved One With Rheumatoid Arthritis: 4 Caregiving Tips

Caring for someone with this autoimmune condition can be challenging, but these proven strategies can help.

woman caring for her mother

Updated on January 29, 2024.

Flareups, joint stiffness, and aches are often hard on people living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)—as well as their caregivers. And while caring for someone in chronic pain can feel like a challenge, you may also find it rewarding, since you can provide them a fuller life with less discomfort.

With that in mind, here four smart caregiving strategies to help both you and the person you care for thrive.

Share caregiver responsibilities

The vast majority of the more than 53 million unpaid caregivers in the United States are women helping a spouse or family member, according to a 2020 report from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the National Alliance for Caregiving. On average, they provide care for more than 20 hours each week, and many work a job and manage a family in addition to caregiving.

If this sounds like you—or even if your situation is completely different—your day-to-day may feel like a struggle. Delegating caregiving tasks to others can help relieve some of the pressure. If you haven’t already, ask family members or friends to take shifts or tasks from your schedule. It may also be helpful to get assistance with your own chores and tasks. For example, you might lean on local parents to carpool to kids’ school and events.

If you have the means, another potential solution is hiring an expert caregiver to share the work. While the home-health workforce has been strained in recent years, help can come from a variety of places, including home health nurses, personal care assistance, respite care, or even a caregiver education course. A professional may be better trained and equipped to handle RA concerns and help you understand the disease, as well. 

Learn ways to cope with stress

Stress and rheumatoid arthritis can create a destructive cycle. Experiencing pain is stressful and increased stress can worsen pain. It may help to talk with your loved one’s healthcare provider (HCP) to create a plan to keep stress and inflammation at a minimum. Meanwhile, here are some helpful hints: 

  • Activities like meditation, massages, and social outings promote relaxation and positive feelings. 
  • Support groups, both online and in-person, can provide you with new, effective ways to manage stress from people who have experience with RA. 
  • Apps such as Unwinding by Sharecare can help maintain calm from day to day.

Many caregivers have symptoms of depression. Whether it’s with a close friend or a mental health specialist, talking with someone about your stressors can be beneficial. If you feel like you or your loved one may need more intensive help, talk therapy may be a good option. Speak with an HCP to find resources. 

Think outside the box to cope with RA pains

Pain is a common symptom of RA, but that doesn’t mean all pain is to be expected. Be on the lookout for changes in comfort levels or habits—such as sleeping more than usual—or flares that last a particularly long time. When these symptoms occur, there are several things you can try to improve pain levels and increase mobility.

First, consider consulting with your loved one’s HCP to see if a medication dosage needs to be adjusted. Medication is an important part of treatment, acting not only reduce pain but to help slow RA progression.

Making lifestyle changes can also be immensely helpful for managing RA pain. If your loved one smokes, encourage them to quit smoking. Eating a well-rounded, healthy diet, which includes reducing intake of fat, sugar, and processed foods, may reduce flareups. It can also contribute to weight management, which helps to keep pressure off sore joints.

People with RA often experience sleep disruption due to pain. This commonly leads to daytime fatigue, which can then lead to more pain. To address this, encourage taking short—10- to 20-minute—naps during the day when needed. You can also try planning tasks when your loved one’s energy levels are higher, or when they tend to feel best (early in the day for morning people, later for night owls).

Exercise can also benefit someone with RA—and help you relieve stress and stay healthy, too. Low-impact workouts increase circulation, stretch sore, stiff muscles, and improve mood. Good exercises for people with RA include walking, swimming, and tai chi. A physical therapist can work with you to create a fitness plan. 

Don’t forget to show yourself some TLC

If you‘re able to manage your mental and physical health, you’re in better shape to look after someone else’s. Remember these key strategies:

  • Carve time into your day to take a brisk walk around your neighborhood or develop simple workouts you can do at home
  • Maintain friendships and engage in social activities when possible. 
  • Set limits and understand it’s okay to say no. 
  • Accept offers of help from friends and family—and when possible, delegate tasks that can be done by others.  

Finally, show yourself compassion. Be as kind to the person in the mirror as you would to others who take time to care for people in need.

Article sources open article sources

AARP and National Alliance for Caregiving. Caregiving in the United States 2020. Washington, DC: AARP. May 2020.
Family Caregiver Alliance. Caregiver Statistics: Demographics. 2016.
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (OASH). Get Support If You’re a Caregiver. Last updated December 7, 2022.
Mayo Clinic. Caregiver stress: Tips for taking care of yourself. March 22, 2022.
HelpGuide.org. Caregiver Stress and Burnout. Last updated December 5, 2022.
Cleveland Clinic. How To Cope With Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain. April 20, 2022.
National Health Service (UK). Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Last reviewed August 28, 2019.
Hospital for Special Surgery. Managing Daily Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Strategies, Skills and Tools. Accessed December 9, 2022.
John Hopkins Medicine. Coping Skills for Caregivers. Page accessed on November 29, 2022.

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