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Helping Older Adults with Mobility Problems

How to select the appropriate mobility device

With age comes decreased or limited mobility. At one time, this was like a jail sentence for many seniors. Not anymore. Today, there are many helpful mobility products that allow the elderly to get out and enjoy life almost as well as they did in their youth.

“Wheelchairs and other mobility products have come a long way in being able to help patients achieve independence,” said Dr. Stephen Stricker, rehabilitation specialist with University of Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, “It is always our goal to help people become as independent as possible for doing activities of daily living, of getting from one place to another, being able to turn the household appliances, being able to reach the objects in the upper cabinets."

Mobility devices run the gamut, from simple walking canes and walkers and rollators, to sophisticated scooters and electric wheelchairs. It is important to determine which mobility product is right for your loved one.

Canes and Walkers

Canes and walkers are used to provide increased stability and support while walking or standing. These devices are often prescribed to a person after an injury, but more often than not, they are used to prevent injuries that can result from falling. Older adults also use canes and walkers to relieve pressure on painful knee or hip joints due to arthritis or other degenerative joint diseases.

When selecting a cane, make sure the handle or grip is comfortable, and that it is the right size. To measure the correct length, your loved one should stand normally wearing their usual shoes. Have them bend their elbow on the side of the body where they will hold the cane. Their hand should be held at a comfortable height as if they were holding the cane, which normally is at the top of the hipbone. Using a measuring tape, measure from the floor to their wrist. This is the length the cane should be.

Wooden canes generally come in precut common lengths, but some manufacturers will make custom cuts. Many aluminum canes are adjustable to different heights.

Walkers come in many styles, with the most common type being the aluminum folding walker. If the person is not strong enough to lift the walker and move it along in front of them, wheels can be added to the front of it.

The most popular type of wheeled walker is the three-wheeled walker. These walkers fold in half for easy travel and are usually equipped with a hand brake and basket. For some seniors, a better option is a four-wheeled walker, which come with seats. Check with your loved one’s doctor or physical therapist to determine which walker is best for them.

Scooters and Wheelchairs

If your loved one is unable to walk, has limited upper body strength, and is not strong enough to use a walker or manual wheelchair, an electric wheelchair may be a good option. Because electric wheelchairs are more maneuverable than scooters, they make navigating indoors easier, especially in tight areas like bathrooms and hallways. This makes them ideal for seniors who have difficulty getting in and out of bed or the bathtub because the chairs can get closer than a scooter. An electric wheelchair also allows older adults to "pull in" to workspaces and tables easier than a scooter, because they don’t have a front end, or tiller.

Electric mobility scooters are engineered for people who have some mobility but are tested by walking duration or distances. There are indoor and outdoor models, and both provide a good option for seniors who need to travel farther distances during their daily activities.

How to Pay for Mobility Help

The good news is that mobility help for seniors is affordable. According to the AARP, Medicare usually pays up to 80% of the cost of a mobility device with a doctor's approval. If you have supplemental Medicare insurance, that may cover the remainder.