The loss of mobility can be devastating to the elderly and seniors. Unfortunately, it is a very common occurrence. The Census Bureau reports that mobility problems are the most common disability among the elderly. Fortunately, there are lots of choices of mobility aids for elderly and seniors.
Medical equipment should be discussed with or prescribed by a doctor, therapist, or other health professional. They know you and your medical history. I don’t. Always follow their advice. Nothing in this article should be construed as medical advice.
The Effects of Losing Your Mobility
Not being able to get around means not being able to do the activities the elderly person is used to doing. It means becoming reliant on family members or caregivers for the care. It also means worrying about falls and injuries that can be life-threatening. There are mobility aids for elderly and seniors that can help maintain independent mobility – and do it safely. Some of these assist with their ability to walk but sometimes wheeled mobility products like wheelchairs or power chairs become necessary.
Loss of mobility also affects many other areas of an elderly person’s care. For instance, a decline in mobility can affect how a person is able to shower and bathe. Getting on and off the toilet can become a problem. It even affects the ability to get something to eat if getting around the kitchen is difficult. Improving or re-establishing independent mobility will directly affect all aspects of the elderly’s or seniors’ life.
When facing a loss of mobility, many elderly get depressed and even angry. No longer going where they want – when they want – leads to frustration and sometimes hopelessness. Before this happens, it is important to learn about the different types of mobility aids elderly people may need someday. Knowing about these options before they are needed allows for smarter decisions. Does the senior need a walking aid or is a wheelchair or wheeled mobility device more appropriate? Of course, it is smart to discuss these options with a medical professional before any final decisions are made.
Walking Aids For Elderly
Sometimes, an elderly person can walk a little but they just need a little help. Or maybe they can walk a decent amount but need to rest periodically. Others may have the strength to walk but lack the balance to do so safely. But knowing which type of walking aid is best is a challenge because most people aren’t really aware of the differences.
Canes are considered the entry-level mobility aid for the elderly. Canes are usually recommended for seniors who are facing a slight loss of balance or weakness in one of the legs. Walking canes are best used by people with an injury on one side or who can walk far distances but need a little help stabilizing themselves.
Another popular use is after hip surgeries because the cane can reduce the weight on the hip as it heals. This is actually the best use for canes. They reduce the weight on the leg opposite of the hand the cane is in. So, if the weakness is in the left leg, the cane should be used in the right hand and vice-versa.
Canes come in many shapes, style, and types (even with built-in lights!):
- Standard/Basic Canes – straight canes with rubber tips and are also often curved at the top aka shepherd hook canes. There are also versions with variously shaped handles. These only make contact with the ground at one point.
- Quad Canes – These have wider bases with 4 tips that make contact with the ground to help stabilize the user. These canes can stand on their own. The bases are available in large or small sizes.
- Folding Canes – these come apart quickly with all the pieces being connected. This allows them to fold up for storage.
Basic canes and quad canes are typically covered by Medicare.
The next mobility aid elderly people need to know about is walkers. Walkers are larger than canes with 4 legs that each make contact with the ground. They are more stable than canes because they are larger and wider than canes. Walkers also support both sides of the body at the same time.
Because walkers are more stable, they are used with elderly and seniors who need more support than a cane provides. Walker users often have weakness in both legs needing balance and support on both sides.
Walkers are used by supporting the body keeping both hands on the handles. The user steps into the center area of the walker then lifts it up and moves it forward. Then, they take a step to recenter themselves between the handle. This process is repeated.
Most walkers today have wheels and glide tips that allow the walker to slide. This keeps the user from having to lift up on the walker. Not having to lift makes a walker easier to use and reduces the chances of injury.
Adjustment of the walker to the proper height for the user is necessary. When walking with a walker, the arms should be bent slightly. The elderly person should walk upright and not bend over. Walkers also usually fold up for transportation and storage.
Hemi-walkers are a variation of the standard walker. They are half the size and lighter than standard walkers and are a combination of a walker and a quad cane. Hemi-walkers offer the support of a quad cane but are easier to grasp and hold.
These are recommended for elderly people with an injury on one side of the body and who have poor or no dexterity in one of their hands. They are more stable than a quad cane but less stable than a full-size walker. These also fold up for easier transportation and storage
To show the difference, this video shows how to walk properly with a hemi-walker:
Knee walkers, also called knee scooters, are wheeled mobility aids that are often temporary in the use. These usually have 4 wheels, a handlebar, and a padded area that supports the lower part of a bent leg.
The most common use for a knee walker is in place of crutches with a broken leg. The casted leg is supported by the pad, the hands are placed on the handlebars, and the walker is propelled by the other leg. It is a bit like riding a scooter as a child! These do well outside on varied terrain too.
Learn more about knee walkers here.
Rollators or Walkers with Seats
Rollators or rolling walkers with seats are used on a more permanent basis. These devices come in 3 wheeled and 4 wheeled options and have handlebars with brakes. The main feature is the addition of a seat with a backrest.
The seat provides a place for the elderly person to rest if they become tired or off balanced. The user locks the hand brakes, turns themself around, and sits on the seat. Once they are rested, they stand back up, unlock the rollator, and continue on their way. The seat also often covers a storage basket where smaller items are stored and carried.
Wheeled Mobility Aids
Unfortunately, many elderly people lose the ability to walk completely or cannot walk safely. In this situation, one of the wheeled mobility aids below is probably a better option.
Manually propelled wheelchairs are wheelchairs with large rear wheels and small front wheels. The user pushes themselves in the chair by moving these large wheels. So, to properly use a wheelchair, the elderly person must have sufficient strength in both arms to move these wheels.
Manual wheelchairs are available in many sizes and weight configurations. The lighter the wheelchair is, the easier propelling is. For example, a standard wheelchair weighs 50 lbs or more, while lightweight wheelchairs weigh 30 lbs or less. Sometimes, this reduction in weight of the chair is the difference in propelling a chair or not.
When choosing a manual wheelchair, it is important to get one that is the proper size. Most wheelchairs are ordered in various seat widths and depths. To determine the best size, sit the user down on a firm chair like a dining chair. Measure the person’s hip width. Then measure the distance from the rear to just behind the kneecap. Most chairs are available in 16″, 18″, or 20″ wide and deep. The most common size of a wheelchair is 18″x16″ which means 18″ wide by 16″ deep.
Manual wheelchairs fold up for easy transportation and storage. The legrests often swing out of the way so that the user can get in and out of it more easily. Comfort of a wheelchair is important too.
Transport wheelchairs have 4 small wheels and cannot be propelled by the user. They are designed for a caregiver to push the user. So, they are used with people who can not walk long distances like shopping or community events.
Transport chairs fold up as well for easy storage. They are very lightweight too which makes them easy to take on the go.
Scooters are electric powered mobility aids that have batteries and motors. They are steered and operated somewhat like a bike or motorcycle. Pulling or pushing a switch makes the scooter go forward or backward. Steering is done by a handlebar like a controller called a tiller.
Scooters are recommended for people who are generally unable to walk long distances. Be careful if using a scooter in a home because they require a lot of room to turn and maneuver. There are many homes they just will not fit in well.
When used outside the home and in the community, scooters do very well. They help elderly and seniors get around stores and do outside tasks like getting the mail. However, the typical scooter does not do well away from smooth surfaces but there are some scooters specifically made for off-roading!
Many mobility scooters break down into smaller pieces to make them easier to take with you. Often, the pieces can fit in a trunk or back of an SUV. The heaviest piece is usually around 30 pounds.
Power wheelchairs are a last resort mobility aid for the elderly. Power wheelchairs are electrically powered using batteries and controlled by a joystick mounted on one arm of the chair. The seat on a power wheelchair looks like the seat in a van with a high back and vinyl type upholstery. There are seats with lower backs available too.
Power wheelchairs are bigger than the other mobility aids. This means they are harder to transport and require a van or lift to take on the road. However, there have been recent improvements with lightweight power wheelchairs that fold up for easier transportation. Ironically though, they fit in some homes better than scooters even. This is because power wheelchairs are made to turn within a tighter radius than scooters.
One of the main considerations with a power wheelchair is the mental status of the elderly person. As I said before, power wheelchairs are heavy. The elderly person risks hurting themselves or others if they can not control it well. A power chair is really dangerous if they do not know how to stop. They could run over a caregiver’s feet or even crash into a wall.
Choosing a Mobility Aid Elderly People Will Use
I hope I have given you enough basic information to understand the differences between the different mobility aids. There is a lot more to know about these than most people are aware. I’ll be adding to this information so keep updated!