Your First Apartment With MS

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

Look, you know having multiple sclerosis doesn't make navigating life any easier. When you're dealing with symptoms like weakness, tingling, dizziness, fatigue, and cog fog, even navigating your living space can be challenging, especially if you're living on your own for the first time. But not anymore! We spoke with an occupational therapist who works with people with MS to get the best advice, gadgets, and creative solutions that can make your apartment work for you and your condition.

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First Step: Assess, Assess, Assess

If you're hardly in your forever home, you can likely make (non-permanent) adapations so your apartment works better for you while you're there, says Gabe Byars, OTR/L, an occupational therapist at Salt Lake Community College who specializes in working with people with MS. (Keep reading for those!)

If you're a bit more settled, think about how well your place will serve you down the line, especially given that your symptoms can change. "You have to think ahead. ‘Where am I going to be [with my MS] in five, 10, or 20 years?" Byars says. Obviously, no one has a crystal ball, but it's important to think through the possible scenarios.

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Decided to Move? 3 Must-have Features

If you've decided to move into a new place because your current one isn’t fitting your needs, there are three main deal-beakers, says Byars. Your apartment should have:

  • At least one entry with no stairs
  • A bedroom and bathroom on the main entry level.
  • Doorways wide enough to fit mobility devices, including a cane, walker, or wheelchair (typically about 32 inches is enough).

Generally, says Byars, the rest can be managed or adapted.

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Looping in Your Landlord

Make sure you have an honest chat with the owners about potential adaptations you’ll need to make due to your MS—before you sign that lease—or if you're already there, before you grab a hammer.

Apartment complexes aren’t required to rent units that comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, according to the National Apartment Association. But the law is on your side in other ways: Most newer buildings must have certain design features in ground-floor and elevator-accessible units that make them easier to adapt for someone with a physical disability. For example, they need reinforced walls by the toilets and bathtub so grab bars can be easily installed, per the Fair Housing Act manual.

Your MS-accessible Apartment Starts Here

Now that the whole business of where you'll live is out of the way, let's get to the fun stuff: the tools and tricks that can make your apartment as MS-friendly as possible.

And P.S.: You might be tempted to download a long accessibility checklist and feel you've got to check everything off, but really, the goal is just to adapt what you need, says Byars.

Amazon Echo Plus
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Get Smart About Tech

Fatigue can be a huge problem for people living with MS. So why not outsource some of your mental effort to a smart home device?

Kathy Reagan Young, 55, of Chesapeake, VA, says the Amazon Echo has been one of her most valuable purchases: "I find it super helpful because you can set reminders," says Young, creator of the MS website FUMS. "I even set reminders to take my medication."

Other smart tech, like timed porch lights, a smart thermostat, and a smart lock and doorbell with a camera, can all save you valuable time and energy when you’re feeling run down, says Byars. You can find more smart-home ideas here.

Open Up the Bathroom (No Demo Required)

Bathrooms are notoriously too cramped to maneuver in when you have a mobility device. Even a cane can feel unwieldy in a tight space. To make the loo feel bigger, install strategically placed grab bars throughout so you don’t need to rely on your walker or cane. You can also consider installing floating door hinges (which create wider openings) or even swapping in a sliding barn door, says Byars.

Another must-have: Hook up a motion-detecting night light in your bedroom. That way, if you get up at 2 a.m. to pee, you can see where you're going, reducing your chance of falling.

Pick Up a Few Cool Kitchen Tools

Love to cook? You can make it work with the right gadgets, even when MS symptoms make it tough. For example, if you're struggling with numbness in your fingers or find it difficult to use a knife, look into adaptive tools. Byars recommends the Verti-Grip knife because its blades are sharp, giving you more control, and it can be used one handed. You can also buy MS-friendly eating utensils that have stabilizing and leveling handles to help you better maintain control when eating.

For safer prep, you might want to check out the steel-mesh gloves that chefs use. That way if you slip, your fingers will be protected.

Instant Pot® Duo Crisp™ + Air Fryer
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Even More Cool Kitchen Tools

There are even more devices that can help you "work smarter, not harder" in the kitchen, says Byars. Instead of straining to open a tricky jar, for example, invest in a jar opener that does the brute-force work for you (there are tons of options on Amazon).

Two more of Byars' kitchen must-haves for energy conservation and meal prep? An air fryer and an Instant Pot. "It's so nice that at the end of the day, you can come home and have a meal that’s good for you and tasty—without much effort."

Create a Quiet Bedroom Sanctuary

Sleep can be a major issue for people with MS, according to the National MS Society—in fact, fatigue affects about 80% of MS-ers. And when you improve your sleep, you’ll have more energy.

You know you can make your room more conducive to a good night's rest by ensuring it's quiet, dark, and cool. In an apartment, peace and quiet can be hard to find. A simple solution? Play white noise on your phone or your smart-home device, suggests Byars. No need to invest in separate noise machine.

Invest in an Excellent Mattress

The type of mattress you sleep on can also make a world of difference to your sleep quality—and quantity. "I have found the Sleep Number bed super helpful because you can adjust it," says Young. "So when I hurt, I can make it soft, or when I need a little more support, I can make it harder."

Consider topping it off with a weighted blanket, which also help lull you to slumberland. There are options within every price range. There are even cooling versions that can be more comfortable on summer nights.

Treat Yourself to a Robot Cleaner

The living room is often a go-to gathering space in the home, where you rest, entertain, or maybe just watch some Netflix. So yeah, the floors can get dirty fast. If ever you needed a reason to treat yourself to a Roomba, now is totally the time. They come in a range of price points and even have a version geared to homes with pets. Let's hear it for never having to vacuum again!

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When in Doubt, Consult an Occupational Therapist

If you're overwhelmed with possibilities when it comes to making your apartment more MS-friendly, know you can always seek the help of a professional. Occupational therapists can help you accomplish the tasks you care about that enhance your life, says Byars. The OT will come out to your home and help you figure out what needs to be done, including how to shift certain habits and routines. Just as your doctor or MS center for a referral.

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.