Kathleen Smith, 55, from Willenhall, West Midlands, was diagnosed with osteoarthritis at 41. She learned to swim when she was 54 to help ease the pain and stiffness.
“The first symptoms I had were pain at the top of my neck and shoulders. Sometimes it woke me in the night, and I usually felt stiff in the morning. My GP sent me for an X-ray and a blood test. He diagnosed osteoarthritis in my neck and the top of my spine. I was 41.
“He referred me to the rheumatology clinic, where they gave me anti-inflammatory painkillers. The arthritis has gradually spread. It’s now down my spine and in my knees. I left my job at a factory within a year of my diagnosis because I couldn't bend. I feel the pain in my joints all the time, and sometimes it’s excruciating. I have steroid injections near my spine. That dulls the pain for about five or six weeks.
"When I was diagnosed I thought I had no life left, but that's not true. Although arthritis affects your day-to-day life, there are lots of things that can help."
“The main thing is exercise. I walk down the garden, and I swim once a week because that’s easier on the joints. I learned to swim last year. I was very frightened of the water at first, but I started with armbands and now I love it.
“I do 15 lengths, resting in between. I feel it in my joints the next day (my knees, spine, arms and legs), but when I’m in the water I don’t feel anything. There’s also a hydrotherapy pool in the local swimming baths. The warmth really seems to help my pain.
“It’s important not to overdo it when you have arthritis. I can’t walk far, but I usually stop to rest, then carry on. I hire a scooter from the charity Shopmobility twice a week to do my shopping. I put my shopping in the basket on the front. It’s good to have your own independence.
"I also attend a local self-help group for people with arthritis. It's a social evening, and has helped me realise that life goes on."
Cared for by a loved one
“My sister Carol, who is three years younger than me, lives around the corner. She's my carer. She helps with the shopping and sees me every morning and night. She helps me undress and get into bed. I heat up special wheat pads in the microwave oven. The warmth helps to ease the pain as I’m falling asleep.
“I have a lot of pain and stiffness in the mornings, and have to sit on the edge of the bed for 10-15 minutes before I can stand up. I can get out of bed myself because I’ve got a bed elevator: you push a button and the bed rises to help you get up.
“During the night I wake up two or three times with pain. I’ve got two walking sticks. I have a little walk to the bathroom and say hello to my budgie Joey on the way. Moving around helps me to fall asleep again.
“I moved into a bungalow five years ago. Some adaptations at home make my life easier. I’ve got a raised toilet seat, the bed elevator, and a walk-in shower with handrails. I can’t clean windows or anything that involves bending. I’ve got one of those 'grabber' things to pick up items I drop on the floor, and to put my clothes in the washing machine."
Steroid injections and check-ups
“I go to the rheumatology department every three months to see how my treatment is going. I’ll keep having the injections until I need to have anything else done, such as surgery, or until the injections stop working. You can get used to the drugs and they might not be so effective.
“I have good days and bad days, but you just have to take your time. If you’re doing a job, rest and have a cup of tea, then go back to the task. It can be frustrating, but you can still live your life. You need to find out what works for you. I now volunteer on the information desk of Walsall Manor Hospital because I want to let people know that there's help."