Choosing Chronic Illness-Friendly Bags

I hadn’t had my cane long when I discovered that the traditional over-the-shoulder purse could be more of a hindrance than a help. More often than not, my heavy bag would swing around unexpectedly, threatening to knock the cane right out of my hand! And so I began a quest for a new, mobility device-friendly bag to carry my essential items.

As with most things, I had a few criteria: it needed to be lightweight, have enough space and pockets for the things I need on the go, be easy to open, and it needed to be stylish.

If you find yourself on a similar quest, here are some things to think about in your own shopping, and some beautiful bags to consider.

Lightweight

Image of vegan leather backpack, with link to Etsy seller
A brown vegan leather backpack purse with two buckled straps and diamond stitching.

When it comes to chronic illness and fatigue, less is more. I try to eliminate any unnecessary energy expenditure, including carrying extra weight. So it’s important to me to choose a purse that doesn’t add to my workload (I have similar criteria for choosing shoes). The material of the bag can make all the difference. For example, real leather, canvas, and heavy nylon can all make for heavy bags. On the other hand, vegan leather, lightweight cotton, and recycled fabric make for lighter bags.

A backpack is very practical if you use mobility aids such as a cane, crutches, walker, or a wheelchair. The bag is kept out of your way as you walk–or it can be easily hooked over wheelchair or walker handles–to minimize the risk of interfering with your movement or having the bag slip off. In terms of weight, a backpack also helps to distribute the load across both shoulders and the back, minimizing strain and stress on just one shoulder.

This backpack is very similar to the one I chose (which, it appears, is no longer available!). Made from vegan leather, it is lightweight and small. But it packs a punch in terms of storage! The bag has multiple pockets that allow you to organize all of your essential medical and non-medical supplies. The zipper pull tabs are large and easy to open. The buckles could be a little fiddly if you have problems with hand pain or coordination. Some bags, such as the one I bought, come with faux buckles that actually snap easily in place.

Organization Space

Image of messenger bag purse, with link to Sari Bari.
A messenger purse made from red patterned recycled sari fabric, hanging on a wooden coat hook with white peg hooks.

The list of “essentials” is a little longer for many of us with chronic illness. There are just so many things we have to have close at hand! And organization is a must, so that we can easily find what we need in an emergency. Near the top of my list of pet peeves, you will find large, cavernous purses with endless open spaces in which to lose things. So when I’m looking for a bag for myself, it’s imperative that it have some built-in structure. I need pockets, zippered sections, and liners to divide up the space and make it easier for me to stay organized.

I’ve said it many times before, but I will always opt to purchase from an organization that gives back if I have the choice, and this organization is particularly close to my heart. All of the products sold by Sari Bari are made from recycled saris (I love an eco-friendly option!)–often patched with beautiful contrasting pieces of fabric– by women who have been rescued from human trafficking in India (an issue I feel passionately about). In fact, the maker’s name is stitched into each item she makes. The bags are absolutely stunning. Being made of sari fabrics, they are lightweight. This messenger bag closes with magnetic snaps, so it’s easy on the hands. Inside are six individual sections: two zippered pockets, two smaller compartments for phones and small items, and two long compartments. The strap is adjustable, and the whole thing is washable. The shop has a variety of styles available, from this cross-over messenger to backpacks to yoga bags. Since they are made from recycled materials, each one is unique and absolutely beautiful.

Easy to Open

Image of soft grey sling back with link to Etsy seller.
Triangular-shaped sling bag in light grey, with several zippered pockets with loop zipper tabs.

Pain and weakness wreak havoc on our ability to do fine motor things. And, let’s be honest, purse and bag closures can be particularly challenging. As you are looking for a useful bag, then, you might want to consider finding one with easy closures. Look for magnetic snaps, snap tabs or flaps, fold-over bags, or zippers with large pulls. This bag’s looped zipper tabs make it especially easy to open.

Sling bags are a style that seems to come and go, much like the fanny pack. For us spoonies, though, they have some very practical benefits. Like a backpack, they keep the bag secured on the back to minimize the risk of it slipping or interfering with mobility devices. They typically have many pockets on both the inside and outside, so that it’s easy to access the things you need. Some even have a small pocket on the strap, to allow you to keep things you need frequently or quickly right within easy reach. They’re also versatile. While they are typically worn on the back, some styles, such as this one, can also be worn on the front. Since the bag fits snugly to the body and doesn’t take up much room, this could be a great solution if you use a wheelchair or walker, since everything you need can be secured to your body within reach, without interfering with your movement.

Stylish

Image of woven handback with link to MZ Fair Trade.
Handwoven blue, mustard, and burgundy Aztec-styled crossover purse with brown leather strap.

I readily admit that when it comes to my accessories (especially my medical-related accessories), I’m a little vain. I’ve given up so much of myself to my illness that I feel the need to reclaim some ground where I can. And often, that’s in my accessories. But there’s no reason why style and practicality can’t go hand in hand.

I’ve talked about three types of bags that are extremely practical: backpacks, messenger bags, and sling bags. If you live with fatigue, pain, weakness, or use mobility devices, I recommend avoiding a few styles of bags in particular. Bags with short handles that are carried in the hand or hooked over a forearm tend to be impractical. They slip off of the arm easily, or rely on hand grip strength to be carried. Likewise the adorable clutch purses that celebrities sport at every gala event. Large totes can be both heavy and open, so that they’re difficult to carry and organize. A heavy purse that rests on just one shoulder can often slip; and all of the weight is supported by just one arm, causing increased fatigue and pain. Clasp closures and buckles can be tricky for sore or weak fingers.

In the end, only you know what you need and what makes you smile. I recommend being practical about the specifications of your bag, and letting your fun side out when it comes to the appearance. There are millions of gorgeous bags in every style: boho, traditional, preppy, handcrafted… Find one that looks like you and makes your life just a little easier!

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