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UW program brings innovation and ideas to farmers and ranchers living with arthritis

Written by Gayle Smith
Wheatland — For longer than he could remember, Joe made several trips from the grain bin to the barn carrying heavy feed buckets in each hand. Although Joe was a strong rancher, years of carrying those heavy buckets eventually took its toll on his body. The back pain became so severe that Joe could no longer carry the buckets.
    Bill spent years farming land that had been handed down through his family for generations. However, years of back breaking physical labor, pinched fingers, sprained wrists and other injuries caught up with the farmer. The day finally came when the task of simply grasping a pencil was too hard for Bill.
    Joe and Bill are just two of 46 million Americans who suffer from some form of arthritis. It is a common ailment that affects one in five people, according to the Arthritis Foundation. The ailment doesn’t affect any particular age since over 300,000 children suffer from it. In fact, two-thirds of all people afflicted with arthritis are under 65-years of age.
    Farmers and ranchers are at an increased risk for arthritis because of the profession they chose. To teach them about arthritis and how to manage their pain, the Wyoming AgrAbility program recently sponsored workshops across Wyoming. These workshops were designed to teach farmers and ranchers the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of arthritis, as well as ways to manage the pain while continuing their farming and ranching tasks.
    According to Randy Weigel, human development specialist with the University of Wyoming and the project director for Wyoming AgriAbility, “More than 80 percent of ranchers and farmers experience some form of arthritis. Ranchers and farmers are heavily affected by this condition, which can reduce their ability to perform work tasks efficiently.”
    Farmers and ranchers are more susceptible to developing arthritis because of the way they do their work. “Most ranches in Wyoming are owner-operator,” said Mary Fick Monteith with the Wyoming Institute for Disabilities (WIND). “If you aren’t there to do the work, the work isn’t going to get done.”
    Arthritis means inflammation of a joint, said Sarah Perry, occupational therapist for the Gottsche Rehabilitation Center. “The term describes more than 100 different conditions that affect the joints, muscles and tendons, and sometimes even the skin, internal organs and other parts of the body,” she added.
    Individuals with pain, stiffness, occasional swelling or tenderness, difficulty moving a joint or redness of a joint or near one could be experiencing arthritis symptoms. Joints can also feel stiff or be hard to move, she added. Perry encouraged those suffering from arthritis not to give up, as treatments are available that can reduce or alleviate symptoms.
    Perry encouraged people who think they may be suffering from arthritis to see a rheumatologist (a doctor who specializes in arthritis) or a doctor who has training with treatment of the condition. “A doctor can recommend a treatment program to help with arthritis,” she explained. Perry also recommended seeking out the Arthritis Foundation, which has additional resources.
    Perry said it is also important for farmers and ranchers to learn how to do their work without adding physical stress that could make arthritis worse. In the example of Joe hauling grain buckets from the grain bin to the barn, an individual could make or purchase a trailer to hook on the back of a 4-wheeler to haul the buckets.
    “The key is to look at the task and see if it could be done differently by using a different tool or piece of equipment to make the task easier on the joints,” Perry said. Farmers and ranchers also need to be more willing to ask for help when they need to. “Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It’s a smart way to do business and will help protect your joints,” she explained.
    Weigel said through the AgriAbility program, professionals are available who can come to a farm or ranch homestead to talk about what modifications could be made to equipment and ways everyday tasks could be done differently. “They can even call us for ideas on retrofitting equipment to make things easier for them,” Weigel said.
    Monteith said many of the services offered by her organization are available to farmers and ranchers regardless of age, disability or income. “Our goal is to provide the means to help individuals accomplish their daily tasks,” she explained. “We have a loan program where someone can come in and try out the device before they decide to make it in the shop or buy it. Some devices can be very expensive.”
    Monteith said her organization does not sell devices, but she can help farmers and ranchers find what they need. She also handles a reutilization program, where she finds new homes for devices that are no longer used by an individual.
    Weigel said the Wyoming AgrAbility program cannot provide money, loans or direct funds to purchase assistive technology devices. However, Weigel said they do work with the Wyoming Technology Access Program (WYTAP) which offers loans at low or no-interest rates to individuals who need to purchase assistive technology devices. If an individual qualifies for the program, they can borrow from $500 to $25,000 with extended payback periods of up to 70 months. In order to be eligible for this program, an individual must be a Wyoming resident with a disability or the legal guardian or family member of an individual with a disability. The individual must show that the loan will be used to purchase an assistive technology device or service. There are no income eligibility restrictions, but applicants must demonstrate sufficient credit worthiness.
    For more information on these programs, contact: Wyoming AgrAbility at 307-766-3052 or find them online at www.uwyo.edu/agrability. WILR can be reached at 307-266-6956. WATR can be reached at 307-766-2085 or online at www.wind.uwyo.edu/watr. Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup.