Living With Polio


Many of us arranged our kitchen back in the days when we were physically capable, so what did it matter if we had to walk extra steps or carry heavy pots? Now, however, we have a finite amount of energy and strength, and we need to assess whether the kitchen meets our needs. Take a few minutes, sit down, look around and evaluate your kitchen.

First, go through your drawers and cabinets and give away items you never use. Then take the items you use most frequently and store them at a height between the head and the hips. This is a ready-made “safety zone” that lets you work or lift things with less energy and strain to the muscles and joints.

Rack-em and stack-em. It seems like whatever you need is always on the bottom or at the back, so the principle here is to store dishes in stacks of their own kind. Do not put small saucers on top of big ones or small bowls inside of larger bowls. Purchase vinyl-coated wire racks for stacking same-size dishes. Then arrange pots, pans, and skillets so you do not have to lift the top items to get to the bottom one. Vertical storage works well for skillets, baking dishes and cookie sheets. If you have the space, you may want to hang pots and pans from a Peg-Board instead of stacking them.

Use plastic lazy susans for storing spices and condiments in the cupboards. I have a two-shelf lazy susan for small container items like spices and a one-shelf lazy susan for taller items. Put frequently used items on the lowest shelf and lesser used items up higher. A reacher comes in handy for plucking items off the higher shelves.

In the pantry, arrange your canned goods and boxes according to how you use them, and put the items you use most frequently where they are most accessible – between the head and the hips. If your pantry shelves are deep enough to hold more than one layer, make the second and third layer the same as the first. That means you put a can of peaches behind another can of peaches but not behind a can of tomatoes. This way you can see your inventory at a glance and will not have to pull out items to get what you want. Get even more storage by attaching a wire shelf unit to the back of a pantry door to hold boxes, cans and bottles. Use stacking storage bins on wheels for staples like potatoes and onions.

Bring objects within easy reach by installing sliding racks, bins, baskets and shelf trays to make your base cabinets usable for cleaning supplies, food staples and serving dishes. Put lower drawers on rollers which can be opened and closed easily with your foot, a cane, or a reacher. D-shaped handles on drawers and cabinet doors are easier to use.

Smaller appliances like an electric can opener can be attached underneath an upper cabinet. If you do not want larger appliances cluttering up the counter, store them on a sliding shelf in a base cabinet and have a handyman install an electric outlet at the back of the cabinet. Your blender or Crock -Pot is always plugged in, you can just roll them out, and you only have to lift the washable component.

When you purchase appliances, consider those that will be easy to use if your condition changes and you will need to be seated while doing tasks. A side-by-side refrigerator allows access to both the refrigerator and freezer, and front controls on the stovetop and oven eliminate the need to reach over hot burners.

Organize by Activity
Do you use time and energy unnecessarily by collecting supplies or equipment to do a job that is done frequently? Try storing things that are used together in one place. For example, put the coffee can, coffee pot, and filters together by the plug next to the sink. I like French toast for breakfast, but I always kept the vanilla and cinnamon in the spice cabinet to the left of the stove and the sugar to the right of the stove. Now they all stay together next to the dish I use for mixing them.

Keep supplies close to the area of first use. For instance, saucepans are usually used first at the sink because you put water in them before taking them to the stove.

Buy duplicates of often used items, such as measuring cups and spoons, paring knives and stirring spoons, and store them at each area where they are used.

Use Energy-Efficient Objects and Tools
Cast-iron skillets and stoneware dishes may have to be given away in favor of lightweight non-stick skillets and pans and lightweight dishes such as Corelle. Take advantage of dishes that can be used for cooking, serving and storing, such as Corningware. They cut down on many steps as well as dishwashing.

An electric can opener takes less effort than manual ones but also requires two hands to operate. The one-handed cordless can opener by Black and Decker is very lightweight and requires no pressure once the cutter has been activated. You can purchase many other kitchen tools which have suction cups and need only one hand, such as a grater, glass and bottle brush, and vegetable scrubber.

Most supermarkets stock packages of vegetables and fruits already washed and cut, but some people prefer to do this themselves. I’d rather use my energy in other ways, but for you folks who are chefs at heart, there are several easy ways to prepare foods. You know that electric knife which gets pulled from the cupboard just for special occasions? Put it to use on a daily basis by slicing fruits, vegetables, cheese and lunch meats in addition to the usual turkey and ham. Store the knife on a wall bracket so it will be available whenever you need it.

A mini food processor or a jar chopper which cuts with pressure from the palm both work efficiently with vegetables. If you opt to use regular knives for cutting and chopping, be sure they are very sharp.

Put a plastic trash can on an elevated platform with wheels and take it with you wherever you work – roll it to the counter, table or stove. When you finish the task roll it to its place under the sink and close the door (remove the shelf under the sink to do this).

Aluminum foil, plastic wrap or wax paper comes inside boxes that have a cutting blade but this is difficult if one hand is weak. Place the boxes front to back in the drawer, rather than side to side, and have enough items in the drawer to keep the boxes from moving. Attach a fine saw blade, teeth up, to the outer side of a drawer, on the side of your strongest hand. Make sure the teeth are just barely higher than the wood, so the drawer can close easily. Open the drawer, grip the desired item, pull it over the saw blade and down, and the cutting is completed.

Sit During Meal Preparation
Sit high enough so that your work surface is slightly below elbow level. If you sit on a high stool or drafting chair when working at the sink, install swing-away doors or open the bottom cupboard and support your feet on the floor of the cupboard or remove the door completely.

Attach an angled mirror against the wall in back of the stove to allow you to see what is cooking on the back burners.

Create a lower work surface by placing a cutting board on an open drawer. Make a bowl holder by cutting our a round hole in the board. I also have a Cosco kitchen cart on wheels which has two shelves, and the bottom shelf folds upward. I put a cutting board on the top shelf and sit with my legs under it while I prepare food. Then I just roll the cart over to the counter and transfer the food.

Use a hospital overbed table as a food preparation surface, a desk for writing, sewing, or hobbies, and for carrying objects. You can find them for little money at thrift shops and yard sales. The height is adjustable, there’s room for your legs underneath, and the finished product can be rolled to its destination.

If possible, change the height of your work surfaces
For persons in wheelchairs, the sink height should be 30-32″ from the floor. Controls mounted on the side of the sink rather than the back are easier to reach. Consider a sink that can have the height adjusted. To do this, you need flexible piping. Also try to get a sink that has the drain near the back, so you can roll under it. Protect your legs from scalding by insulating the pipes.

Replace round faucet handles with a single lever handle which can be pushed with your palm or forearm. Consider a hands-free electronic faucet: the water turns on when an infrared sensor detects hand movement under the spout. Electronic faucets can be purchased with a preset temperature control option to prevent accidental scalding.

High cabinets can be made accessible by installing pull-down E-Z shelf, which can be retrofitted into existing cabinets which are 33″ or less in width. Your existing shelves can be reused for this.

Bottom cabinets in the kitchen and bathroom should have drawers on rollers or pull out shelves for easy access. Have a variety of cabinet heights for working standing or seated. Bottom cabinets also need toe space so your wheelchair can get closer. Allow open space beneath sinks, counter tops, and islands so you can do tasks from a wheelchair. A butcher block table on casters can be rolled to wherever you’re working. Leave it open underneath for sitting.

Cooktops should be 30-32″ from the floor for seated persons and the controls should be in front to eliminate reaching over hot burners. If the cooktop and range are drop-in rather than built-in, they can be installed at the appropriate height.

Streamline your Kitchen Work
Handle duplicate tasks at one time. Prepare a double batch – meat loaf, lasagna or muffins for example – and freeze half for use at another time. Make a big pot of stew and freeze it in small containers.

Do not put away the most frequently used dishes and cooking utensils. Let dishes dry in a rack, then set the table for the next meal. (I use my dishwasher as a drying rack most of the time.) Wash pots and pans then let them dry on top of the stove or near the sink, ready to be used again.

When cooking pasta or other foods which need draining, put the food into a deep fryer basket or stainless steel mesh basket placed within the cooking pot. Using a potholder, lift the basket by the handle out of the boiling water. When the water cools, slide the pot to the sink and empty it.

Place your cutting board on the counter next to the sink and set a bowl or pot in the sink. The chopped food can be pushed off the board right into the bowl.

Use oven mitts instead of pot holders for more protection. Pull out oven racks instead of reaching into the heat and use the front burners whenever possible. Roll back long loose sleeves or fasten them with rubber bands so they will not catch fire when you use back burners or catch on pot handles and cause scald injuries.

Place potholders, dish towels, plastic utensils, and flammable or combustible items away from the range or oven. If towels hang close to a burner, change the location of the towel rack. Remove curtains which come too close to heat sources.

Wipe up spills immediately.

© 1999-2008 Grace R. Young
Courtesy of Diane Young and Sharon Lark

Before I used a wheelchair full time, I also used to use a drafting chair in the kitchen. Now, I’m lucky enough to have built a fully-accessible house, with lowered height cabinets and a lower than usual counter height, suitable for use in my wheelchair. The side by side refrigerator is definitely a must to allow easy access to both the freezer and the main refrigerator portion.

Suggestion: If you have an opportunity to replace your dishwasher, consider purchasing a Fisher and Paykel “dish drawer.” It is smaller than a normal dishwasher and can be installed in a cabinet meant to hold a microwave oven below the countertop. The main feature is that the dish drawer is only about 16” high. It is much easier to load/ unload everyday since you don’t have to reach as far down to get to the floor of the unit. The smaller capacity is great for those of us who are past the age of kids. It can be used more often with smaller loads, yet costs less per load than a full-sized dishwasher.

If you do a large remodeling of the kitchen, consider doing 2 dish drawers, one on either side of the sink, as I did. That will give you the capacity of a normal dishwasher and the ability to alternate using one for clean and one for dirty. That completely eliminates the job of “putting the dishes away.”

Linda Myers 

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