When surgery—minor or major—is on the schedule, your focus might be on getting through the ordeal, but for an easier and safer recovery, look ahead to your return home and plan for it with these tips from occupational therapist Kathryn Keaney, OTD, OTR/L of the Hospital for Special Surgery.
SMALL STEPS, GREATER COMFORT
Just seeing to the activities of daily living, like washing, dressing and cooking, can be difficult after an operation. Simple and smart adaptations around your home can make it a happy haven while you heal. The key is to do the legwork before you head to the hospital—it might even distract you from the anxiety you’re feeling. Take a room-by-room approach to simplify the process.
In the living room…
Clear a path. A fall is the last thing you want to have happen after any kind of surgery. Clear your living area and all rooms and hallways of any throw rugs, stacked magazines and anything that can be a tripping hazard. This prep step is especially important if you’ll need to maneuver around with a cane or walker as you recover.
Sit high. Pile pillows on your favorite chair or sofa to prop yourself up. This makes both sitting down and getting up easier on your body. After surgery, avoid chairs that rock or roll because they could tip over or slip out from under you respectively.
Create a place for post-op essentials. Whether on a coffee table or tray placed next to that favorite chair, organize the items you’ll reach for often, like a phone, the remote control, a box of tissues and that book you’re going to finally read, so you won’t have to get up and hunt for them later.
In the kitchen…
Stock up. Even if driving limitations aren’t supposed to last beyond a day or two, you may not have the energy to go up and down the aisles of a grocery store for a while longer. Make sure you have food and household supplies for the day you get home and at least a few days beyond (including toilet paper—believe it or not, that’s often forgotten).
Cook ahead. You might not feel like cooking or be physically up to standing over pots and pans for a few days. Don’t let that keep you from replenishing nutrients through nourishing meals. Make a few healthy one-pot dishes before your surgery and freeze them. Then just defrost, reheat and refuel.
Organize your space. Whether you’re having spine or abdominal surgery or a rotator cuff repair, you might not be able to bend down or reach up afterward. Arrange everyday kitchen essentials, like plates, glasses and cooking supplies, on countertops or in a cabinet within easy reach.
In the bathroom…
Raise “the throne.” Consider getting a raised toilet seat to make getting up and down here safer and easier, too. Some have attached arms on the sides for added stability.
Make bathing safe. A bath or shower can be tricky while you’re on the mend. you might be unsteady or unable to move the way you’re used to, and you might even need to keep part of your body shielded from water—all with wet feet! Consider having grab bars professionally installed by a handyman or general contractor who will be sure to attach them to the studs in your walls so that they will give you (and anyone else using them) proper support. Grabbing them when unsteady can not only keep you from falling but can turn bathing from a scary proposition into something to look forward to. Note that the kind of grab bars that attach with suction cups are not reliable. Just as with grabbing a regular towel bar, your weight can pull these right off the wall.
More smart bathroom ideas: Buy an adjustable shower chair in case you don’t have the strength to stand while showering, and place a nonskid mat on the floor outside as well as inside your shower or tub.
Bonus: These are all terrific safety accommodations that can serve you well even after recovery from surgery.
In the bedroom…
Adjust your bed. If your bed frame is very low, making it painful to lower yourself down, placing a bed riser (available at many housewares stores) under each leg can make it easier to get on and off. (Don’t try to prop up bed legs with books—they could easily slip off.) Another option is to add an air mattress or memory foam topper over your mattress. One way to tell that your mattress is at the best height: When you’re sitting on the edge of your bed, with feet planted on the floor, your thighs should be slightly higher than your knees. In contrast, if your bed is already so high that you need to climb up to get into bed, get a sturdy step stool, ideally with a tall handle, to place bedside.
Or move your mattress. If your bedroom is upstairs and you’re having a procedure that will make climbing stairs difficult, consider relocating your bed to the main level of your home temporarily. If that’s not possible, plan your recovery days so you make one trip down the stairs in the morning and one back up at night to sleep. That might involve having medications, a raised toilet seat, and fresh bandages as well as a phone and clean clothes (just in case) on both levels.
All around the house…
Give yourself a (mechanical) hand. Assistive devices can help in many ways:
- A reacher or grabber is a tool that acts as an extension of your arm to get things from a high shelf or the floor. It can also aide in helping you to get dressed if you are having a hard time with underwear and pants.
- A long-handled body sponge makes showering easier.
- If you’ll be getting a walker, outfit it with a tray and basket or bag to safely carry food or other items from room to room.
All the home-health products mentioned here are available through medical-supply stores and websites.
At your pre-op office visit or during a follow-up phone call, talk to the people on your medical team about specific limitations you’re likely to face after the operation and what additional devices will help you the most.
And don’t forget to let your loved ones help. Friends and neighbors as well as family members might be waiting for you to ask—so ask! Be as specific as possible, whether it’s asking them to pitch in with housework, walk your dog or collect your mail until you get back on your feet. Many patients are reluctant to reach out, rationalizing that they don’t want to be a burden, but some TLC will do you a world of good…and your friends won’t mind.