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The Keeper of the House

By Barry Corbet
Reprinted with permission from New Mobility Magazine

Doing housework from a wheelchair is possible. It is not practical. Nonetheless, some of us insist on doing it. For all you masochists out there, there are ways and means.

To make household chores more approachable, I suggest dividing them into three categories: what you can't do, what you can but shouldn't do, and what you can and should do. Then farm out what you can't or shouldn't do.

What you shouldn't do is what harms your body or makes you too tired or cranky to do more rewarding work.

This leads to one inescapable conclusion: If you can possibly afford one - sell the car, rent out the children - get a housekeeper to come in every week or two. Repeat after me: Get a housekeeper! The Golden Rule of housework is to get someone else to do it. Not doing housework is emancipating in ideology and practice.

But if you're stuck with it, here's how some people do it.

Sweeping:

"Forget the kitchen-style broom," says Annalysa Aldren, a para from Austin, Texas. "The shop broom is the way to go. I pull it toward me as I back out the door, then push the dirt off the patio."

Kim LaMarche, who has cerebral palsy and lives in Fountain Valley, Calif., favors a broom with a 26-inch handle, along with a stand-alone dustpan. That way she doesn't bonk herself on the head trying to use a long broom with one hand. She says she has a mantra she recites when buying cleaning tools: "light weight, short handle."

From the unclear-on-the-concept department: Fred Shotz, a wheeler from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., tried to teach his service dog to sweep his hardwood floors by attaching a push broom to its harness. The dog was quick about learning to pull the broom, but dense about sweeping the dirt into a pile. "He's great at moving dirt from place to place," says Shotz, "but I already do that myself in the course of daily living."

Dara McLaughlin, a para from Rio Rancho, N.M., is more on target. She decides where to collect the dirt and leaves a cordless handheld vacuum on the spot. "Sweep then vac," she says.

Vacuuming:

You have a choice: Use a handheld cordless vacuum or a vacuum that actually sucks. The ones that suck are a pain to use from a wheelchair.

LaMarche says her Eureka Super Broom splits the difference. "Although it's very lightweight," she says, "it can clean both floors and carpets and has a strong enough motor to get the job done. The cord isn't long enough to cause a problem, but it's long enough that I don't need to use an extension cord."

Bob Rockhold, a quad from Lake Castaic, Calif. has another idea. "I saw a guy vacuuming a hospital floor with a backpack-type canister." He reports. "I'm actually considering trying one. I wonder if it can be switched from suction to blower to make like Rocket Man?"

Options: Walt Dudley, who has multiple sclerosis and lives in Dickinson, N.D., says a short-handled carpet sweeper is easy to use from a wheelchair. For sweeping patios, says LaMarche, nothing beats a leafblower. Don't try this indoors.

Odd Jobs:

Hulley says that Star picks up each of his four morning papers as it's delivered outside at ungodly hours. What's more, he says, Star folds the papers - sort of - after they're read and puts them in a basket for disposal. If you can't get a housekeeper, get a service dog.

Pet Care:

Luis Mendez, who has multiple sclerosis and lives in Hoboken, N.J., brushes his cats outdoors on his 14th floor balcony. No mess, no fuss, no word on what his 13th-floor neighbors think.

Since cats can climb, says Jean Lunt, who also has multiple sclerosis, and lives in Hanover Park, Ill., you should put their dishes and food where you can reach them. And, McLaughlin has found two key resources - a vet and a pet groomer who make housecalls.

Cooking:

Heat is not your friend. Binny Clark, a para from New Boston, N.H., likes pots with long, sturdy handles so he can keep hot liquids at arm's length. "A spill in your lap would dampen your ardor," he says. Almost everybody has a cutting board for preparing food and transporting hot dishes.

"Keep everything where you are going to use it," advises Lunt. Simple as it is, this just may be the best advice I was given.

"I keep all cooking items extremely organized and insist that anyone else who uses the kitchen keep the order," says McLaughlin.

"Microwave is the name of the game," admits Dudley, "and Domino's over Pizza Hut anytime."

Washing Dishes:

Load everything into a dishwasher. Contrive to be gone when it needs to be emptied. If there are more dirty dishes on top of the dishwasher than clean ones within, your strategy has failed.

In my opinion, the easiest dishwashers to use from a wheelchair have the utensil rack attached to the door. This configuration permits sliding dishes into the bottom rack without opening the door all the way. Don't want to deal with a dishwasher? Wash the dishes after every meal and store them on a rack next to the sink. Use plastic plates if weight is a concern, paper plates if you're that desperate for convenience.

Garbage Disposal:

Always use a trash can liner. When it's full, put it on your lap. About five percent of the time it will rupture. Pick up the trash (again). Change your clothes. Clean the floor. Smile. The alternative is to take out the entire container. Tilt it over the outside garbage can. Hit it on the side of the can. Nothing will emerge. Catch the edge of the container on your joystick. You'll be hell on wheels and everything will emerge.

"Don't be cheap," says Clark. "Use oversized bags, double bagged." I can't dispute this advice.

LaMarche has two solutions: "Rubbermaid Roughneck drawstring trash bags-they're super-huge so you'll never overstuff the bag and they have long drawstrings-and trash cans on wheels to help me get the garbage outside."

An environmental ethic is helpful here, says Bhavna Mehta, a para living in La Jolla, Calif. Consume less, throw away less, clean less.

Gardening:

If you are rich, get a gardener. If you're not, be circumspect about what you plant. Insist on easy maintenance. Deal with unwanted growth in a decisive, timely manner.

Karp favors narrow lightweight hoses that don't kink, and uses a watering wand to reach deep into flower beds. To make tending plants easy, Rockhold recommends building beds about 20 inches above grade. In Southern California, he says, automatic sprinklers are a must. Indoor plants? "If they can't last a week without water they don't live in my house!"

Shopping:

I collect my groceries in a cardboard carton that cost 69 cents from my local market. It holds twice as much as those plastic baskets, eliminates the need for bags, and sits comfortably in my lap.

Lunt orders her groceries online, and the store delivers. "I do all my shopping by Internet, catalog and phone," she says. "If I can't order it, I don't get it."

Many grocery stores will take your phone order and have it ready for you when you arrive. A precious few will still deliver.

Laundry:

"I have a front-loading washing machine that I totally love," says Karp. "No having to reach down deep into the bottom of a top-loader, and it's easier on clothes."

I had a front-loader for years and it kept breaking down. Now I have a top loader. I can'' reach all the way to the bottom, but whatever I miss one time tends to float within reach the next.

"I rely on the old 'feed the washer all week and flip the power switch on Saturday' system," says Rockhold. He agrees with Karp that front-loaders are the way to go.

Washing the Car:

I hold this to be in the same category as making beds, but some people can't stand a dirty car. Hulley-he's one of them-says he finds the tools to do it efficiently at Griot's Garage (www.griotsgarage.com).

I side with Mehta, who waits for a good rain.

Paying Bills:

McLaughlin uses an electronic bill-paying service that sounds very handy. "No extra stamps, no using up checks, no worry about forgetting a bill," she says. "I just make a call when the bill comes in and tell the service when to mail out how much to where. It's $4 a month for the service."

Computer Maintenance:

The trick, says LaMarche, is to buy a computer that comes with round-the-clock telephone support and on-site repair. The other trick is to know a nerd.

Snow Removal:

"That's why God created landlords," says Dudley. He should know-he lives in North Dakota. "Move to a kinder, gentler climate," says Clark. He should know-he lives in New Hampshire.

Housekeeping doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing thing. If you can't actually do some chores, you can often help. Mendez says he takes responsibility for cleaning the toilet and wash basin, both of which he can reach from his chair. He takes out the garbage. But when it comes to dusting, his wife hands him objects to dust while she does the shelves. He takes inventory of groceries, creates shopping lists and keeps track of finances. Almost any job can be made easier by a wheeler willing to help.

Outside help doesn't have to break the bank. Hulley says he finds cut-rate workers by calling the 4-H club coordinator at the nearest high school. He says there's always someone willing to work one afternoon a week. For repair jobs, he finds that places like Ace Hardware and Home Depot often can direct him to craftsmen who will work for a low hourly wage.

And did I mention this? Get a housekeeper!

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