Table of Contents
- The challenge
- The solution
- Walking sticks
- Walker-cane hybrids
- Knee scooters and crutches
- Walking scooters
- Mobility scooters
- Transportation devices
- Other aids
The most common disability in older adults is mobility, affecting 27% of the U.S. population age 65 and over. This includes having problems with walking, using stairs, changing from one position to another, or falling.
Mobility issues can result from a general decline in balance, flexibility, strength, or coordination, as well as from neurological conditions, stroke, arthritis, diseases, infections, or recovery from injuries or surgery. If seniors allow their mobility issues to reduce how much they move about, they are likely to experience further declines – not only in their mobility and overall physical health, but also in their emotional and mental health, as they become more isolated, fearful, or depressed.
To stay mobile, seniors can choose from a wide range of mobility aids. These are manual or powered assistive devices that help people move from one place to another. Some people may object to using mobility aids because they feel bulky and inconvenient, while others perceive a stigma attached. The benefits of mobility aids, however, are invaluable: avoiding further injuries, increasing physical activity, and improving health – and ultimately living independently, connecting with people, and regaining confidence.
Read on to learn about the many types of mobility aids that can help, starting with ones that provide light support, all the way to ones that provide maximum support.
For seniors who have occasional difficulty with walking, a walking stick can be a good starter mobility aid. Typically used by hikers to help provide stability and support on uneven terrain, walking sticks are lightweight and often adjustable. Folding or collapsible walking sticks will be more convenient to bring along, though not as strong and rigid as fixed-length walking sticks.
A cane is an entry-level walking aid that can help seniors who need ongoing support with walking because of impaired balance or weakness in one leg. To use a cane, you will need enough strength in your hand, wrist, and arm as you take some of the load off your leg.
Different canes provide different levels of support depending on three key aspects of the design:
- Tip: The end of the cane that touches the ground
- Shaft: The length of the cane
- Handle: The part that your hand holds
Canes typically have one to four tips, each covered with a rubber cap. Standard canes are single-point canes with one tip. Canes with three tips may be called three-point, three-prong, three-legged, or tripod canes. Similarly, canes with four tips may be called four-point, four-prong, four-legged, quad, or quadripod canes.
The more tips the cane has, the more stability and support it provides, but the heavier, slower, and more difficult it is to maneuver. A cane with at least three tips also has the advantage of being freestanding, so you don’t need to pick it up from the floor.
The cane shaft must be sized correctly for your height to provide appropriate support. More specifically, the top of the cane should be level with your wrist crease when your arms are relaxed at your sides.
The cane’s stability also depends on whether the shaft is fixed, adjustable, or folding:
- Fixed-length or non-adjustable canes: These canes have a predetermined length and provide the most stability.
- Adjustable or telescoping canes: These canes can be lengthened or shortened within a certain range to accommodate people of different heights, but are somewhat less stable than a fixed-length cane.
- Folding or collapsible canes: These canes can be broken down into multiple sections that remain connected by a cord running through the middle. As a result, they are good starter canes for people who want a portable device that is convenient to store, carry, and pull out when needed, but who do not require the greater stability of fixed-length canes.
The shape of the handle determines not only how comfortable the cane is to hold, but also how much pressure it puts on your hands and how well your weight is supported by the shaft. Different types of cane handles include:
- Crook, hook, shepherd, tourist, umbrella, or J or C cane handles: This is the classic handle shaped like a candy cane or an upside-down letter “J.” It’s convenient to hang on your arm, chair back, door knob, or wall hook when not in use, but tends to put more pressure on the palm of your hand.
- Derby, Fritz, contour, palm grip, Fischer, anatomical, functional, comfort, knob, or T cane handles: These cane handles vary slightly from each other, but generally look like a tilde (~) symbol or the letter “T” or “r.” They tend to be more ergonomic and comfortable for arthritic hands.
- Offset, swan neck, or orthopedic cane handles: These handles look like a question mark (?) symbol. Because they extend out on both sides of the shaft (unlike J handles), they distribute your weight more evenly over the shaft and provide more stability. Bariatric canes typically use this type of handle.
- Forearm cane handles: These handles extend up from the top of the cane onto your forearm, which moves some pressure off your hands and wrists to your arms. Often these devices are called forearm crutches rather than forearm canes.
Some canes have extra features that provide more safety, support, or convenience:
- Canes with lights, also called lighted canes or LED canes: These canes have built-in lights for more safety. They can help you see your path and surroundings, make you more visible to others so they don’t accidentally collide with you, and possibly act as a crime deterrent.
- Canes with seats, also called seat canes or cane seats: With built-in seats, these canes provide a convenient place to rest when you need a break from walking or standing. Most have three legs, but a few are quad seat canes with four legs. There also are seat sticks that have just one point, which will be lighter and easier to maneuver, but require good balance when you sit on them.
- Umbrella canes: If you need to bring both a cane and an umbrella, an umbrella cane can be a convenient 2-in-1 device. Some are single-piece devices so you can use it as either a cane or umbrella at any given time. Some are two-piece devices where the cane can be pulled out of the umbrella; this lets you use both simultaneously when needed, but keep them nested together when you only want to use one.
There are some walking aids that bridge the gap between canes and walkers (which are described in detail later in this article). These hybrid devices provide more support than canes, while being lighter and easier to maneuver than walkers. They are usually used on one side of your body, similar to canes.
- Walker-cane hybrid: This device has two legs that are spaced far apart and held in place by horizontal bars near the top. As a result, it provides more support than two separate canes, and almost as much support as half a walker.
- Rock Steady cane: This branded device is like a walker-cane hybrid, but has four points rather than two. This allows it to be freestanding and provide more stability as well.
- Hemi walker, side walker, or one-arm walker: This mobility aid has four legs spaced far apart like a standard walker, but only one horizontal bar for you to hold on to at the top. This gives it more support than a cane, while being lighter and easier to move than a standard walker.
A crutch is another type of mobility aid that helps people walk, but without putting any weight on one leg. Crutches can be used on just one side of your body, but are more commonly used on both sides together.
Crutches are larger and more supportive than canes, but also require more upper body strength, energy, and coordination so you can bear weight and move yourself forward. As a result, they are not as commonly used among seniors.
Different styles of crutches provide different levels of support:
- Underarm or axillary crutches: These are the classic style used in the United States, where you rest your underarm on the crutch. They are usually used on a temporary basis when someone is recovering from a leg injury or surgery.
- Forearm, elbow, lofstrand, or Canadian crutches: These are gripped by your hands like canes, and also extend upward into a cuff around your forearm near the elbow, which provides greater support. They involve a steeper learning curve than underarm crutches, so they tend to be used for long-term needs.
- Platform, gutter, or forearm support crutches: With these crutches, your forearm rests on a horizontal platform parallel to the floor. Your weight rests across your forearm, rather than your hand and wrist. As a result, they provide even more support than standard forearm crutches.
Knee scooters and crutches
A knee scooter, also called knee walker, is a mobility aid that helps people who have an injured foot or ankle move about. You push your uninjured leg against the ground, while your injured leg rests on top of a small, padded wheeled device. On the injured leg, all your weight is on the knee and lower leg, while the ankle and foot rest. As you propel yourself with your standing leg, you also use your upper body and hands to steer the device with the handlebars.
A knee crutch is another option for moving around without putting any weight on an injured foot or ankle. Unlike a knee scooter, this device has no wheels and is strapped to your leg, while you move about entirely hands-free. It’s also smaller, lighter, and easier to navigate in tight spaces. Some people even use it to maneuver stairs (carefully). The caveat is that there is a steeper learning curve to use a knee crutch than a knee scooter. (It definitely put my balance to the test, as I realized that with each step, there was a brief moment where I was balancing my entire body on my knee as it rested on that crutch!)
This article, Types Of Mobility Aids And Devices: What’s Right For You?, has been written and published by Senior Wing.
A rollator is like a walker (described in detail later in this article) with the addition of wheels, handlebars, hand brakes, and often, a built-in seat so you can rest as needed; in fact, rollators are sometimes called wheeled walkers or rollator walkers. Because a rollator sits entirely on wheels, it moves forward more easily, quickly, and naturally than a standard walker. At the same time, the wheels make a rollator less stable than a walker, which can be dangerous if you lean against it for support or balance when the handbrakes are not engaged.
One key factor that affects a rollator’s performance is the number of wheels. The fewer wheels it has, the easier it is to maneuver, but the less stable it is. The more wheels it has, the slower it is to maneuver, but the more stable it is.
- The most streamlined rollators are three-wheel rollators or triangle rollators, also called three-wheel walkers
- Four-wheel rollators, also called four-wheel walkers, are the most common design
- There is now even a seven-wheel rollator, with the wheels arranged along a stable U-shaped base
Styles of rollators
Depending on the environment in which you will be using the rollator, you may want to consider one of the following types:
- Folding rollators or lightweight rollators: If you need something easy to transport and store, consider a folding or lightweight rollator. A lightweight rollator will be easier to maneuver as well.
- Narrow rollators: Look for narrow rollators if you need to navigate narrow hallways and spaces at home.
- Outdoor rollators, all-terrain rollators, or beach rollators: For outdoor use, you’ll want a rollator that has larger wheels that can handle uneven terrain. Some function as beach rollators as well, with larger, wider wheels that won’t sink into the sand.
- Tall rollators: If you are tall, make sure to get a rollator appropriately sized for your height so that you avoid stooping over.
- Heavy duty rollators, bariatric rollators, or extra wide rollators: Make sure to get a rollator that will properly support your weight as well.
- Upright rollator (often called an upright walker) or stand up rollator: If you are debating between an upright walker vs. a traditional rollator, consider that a drawback of a traditional rollator is that you need to bend over to push it along. The built-in seat also can get in the way of standing close enough to the rollator to be fully upright. To support a proper posture, some people prefer to use an upright or stand up rollator, where their elbows are bent at 90-degree angles and their forearms rest horizontally on the rollator. There is even another unique type of rollator where you can stand fully upright, yet walk hands-free; meanwhile, the device surrounds you on the left, back, and right sides and is connected to you with a belt around your waist, thereby preventing any potential falls.
- Rollator transport chairs or transport chair rollators: These 2-in-1 devices can convert from a standard rollator to a transport wheelchair, which can come in useful if you are on a long outing with a companion who can push you along while you rest.
A walker is a mobility aid suitable for people who have balance or weakness issues in both legs. With four tips touching the ground and a sturdy frame that surrounds the person on the left, front, and right, it provides more stability than any of the devices mentioned above. At the same time, it is more cumbersome and tiring to use because it must be lifted before every step.
The most stable walkers have zero wheels. There are also two-wheel walkers or front-wheel walkers, which are easier to use; whenever you take a step, you only need to lift up the back two legs that don’t have wheels, rather than the entire device. As expected, two-wheel walkers offer slightly less stability than walkers with no wheels.
If you hear of three-wheel or four-wheel walkers, those are the same devices as the rollators already discussed in the section above.
Styles of walkers
To better accommodate the environment where you will be using the walker, you can choose from many types now available:
- Folding walkers or lightweight walkers: Consider these if you want something portable and easy to move and store.
- Narrow walkers or ultra-narrow walkers: For small spaces at home, you may find it easier to use a narrow walker.
- Outdoor walkers or all-terrain walkers: These are actually rollators rather than walkers, since they sit entirely on wheels. It’s too difficult to use walkers with legs on uneven terrain.
- Tall walkers: If you are tall, it’s important that you get a walker that is high enough to give you proper support.
- Heavy duty walkers, bariatric walkers, or extra wide walkers: Similarly, it’s important to get a walker that will fully support your weight as well.
- Upright walkers or stand up walkers: These are actually rollators rather than walkers, since they are entirely wheeled.
- Walkers with seats: Usually, this phrase refers to rollators, but there are a few walkers (with zero or two wheels) that have a built-in seat that can fold down when you want to sit and rest.
The various types of mobility aids described above all help someone to walk. Walking scooters, however, allow someone to move around on wheels while sitting down and pushing their feet against the ground to propel them along. Also called seated walking scooters, walking aid seated scooters, or walking bikes, they resemble bicycles or tricycles without pedals.
Wheelchairs are appropriate for people who cannot walk safely with a mobility aid, or who can do so but only for short distances. More stable and supportive than walking scooters, wheelchairs resemble chairs with four wheels.
Wheelchair source of power
The biggest difference among wheelchairs is how they are powered and moved around.
- Transport wheelchairs: If you have a caregiver who will push your chair, then a transport chair may be a good choice. With four small wheels, this wheelchair is the smallest, lightest, and easiest to navigate.
- Manual wheelchairs: If you have a strong upper body, consider using a manual wheelchair. It has two large back wheels that you can push to propel yourself around independently.
- Powered wheelchairs, electric wheelchairs, or motorized wheelchairs: For full support and independence, consider getting one of these wheelchairs, which typically run on batteries. The caveat is that they will be larger, heavier, and more difficult to transport, store, and maintain than the wheelchairs listed above.
Styles of wheelchairs
Once you’ve identified how the wheelchair will be powered, determine where and how it will be used:
- Folding wheelchairs, lightweight wheelchairs, or travel wheelchairs: Consider these wheelchairs if you need easy portability and storage.
- Narrow wheelchairs: For a home with narrow hallways and doors and small kitchens and bathrooms, a narrow wheelchair may make it easier to get around.
- Heavy duty wheelchairs, bariatric wheelchairs, or wide wheelchairs: Ensure that the wheelchair is designed to support the desired weight and size.
- All-terrain wheelchairs, outdoor wheelchairs, or beach wheelchairs: These have larger tires and other design changes so that you can cover uneven terrain more smoothly.
- Standing wheelchairs, stand up wheelchairs, or sit-to-stand wheelchairs: These wheelchairs can lift someone from a sitting to standing position without having to rely on a caregiver. Standing up helps someone not only to access things that previously were out of reach, but also to improve their physical health.
- Shower wheelchairs: If your home has a roll-in shower, these wheelchairs can make the transfer process into the shower much easier and safer.
- Wheelchair bicycles: These are like transport wheelchairs, except the caregiver bikes instead of pushing the wheelchair by hand – a great way to enjoy a bike ride together.
Mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs are similar mobility aids in several ways. Both enable someone to move around independently while remaining seated by using battery power.
Where they differ is that mobility scooters are lower-end consumer products that are typically used on a casual, limited basis. They are useful for people who may not have the endurance to stand and walk for long periods of time, but do have enough upper body strength to sit upright and maneuver the handlebars. Powered wheelchairs are higher-end, more advanced medical devices that are used on an ongoing basis by people who are generally chair-bound but able to control joysticks.
Mobility scooter wheels
Mobility scooters usually have three or four wheels. As with other mobility devices, the three-wheeled mobility scooters are lighter and more maneuverable, while the four-wheeled mobility scooters are more stable.
Styles of mobility scooters
- Travel mobility scooters and folding mobility scooters: These are lighter, more compact, and easier to transport in a car. Some can be disassembled easily as well.
- Heavy duty mobility scooters or bariatric mobility scooters: These scooters are designed to support higher weights, an important consideration point for motorized devices.
Sometimes, people get creative and use transportation devices that aren’t specifically targeted toward those with mobility issues, but can be helpful nevertheless:
- Electric scooters: If your legs tire from walking long distances, but your balance, coordination, reaction time, and upper body strength are superb, then these lightweight, motorized devices may be a solution.
- Segways: These also require excellent balance and coordination and have their own steep learning curve, but can reduce how much you need to walk.
- Electric bicycles, electric bikes, or e-bikes: If you want to sit rather than stand, however, electric bicycles or at least electric scooters with seats may be a better fit.
- Tricycles: These provide more stability with three wheels, at the expense of weight and maneuverability. Electric ones can help reduce the effort needed to ride.
- Golf carts: At some senior living communities, people can drive golf carts to get from place to place without having to walk so far.
- Baby strollers and baby carriages: Finally, some seniors use baby strollers or baby carriages as makeshift rollators. Be careful about using strollers or carriages that don’t have the built-in handbrakes found in standard rollators!
The following are not technically mobility aids that help you get around, but they do help make the journey easier.
- Portable chairs: A portable seat can give you a place to sit down and rest when you’re tired, and therefore help you continue walking afterwards. These include camping chairs, travel chairs, and one-legged portable stools, as well as the aforementioned cane seats.
- Non-slip footwear: Avoid tripping and falling by wearing secure shoes, slippers, and socks with treads.
- Transfer aids: Sit-to-stand aids can help you change safely between seated and standing positions. There are also car transfer aids that help you get in and out of beds or vehicles.
- Carrying accessories: If you need to bring personal items with you as you walk around, attach bags to your mobility device or use wheeled carts or bags. Reducing the burden while you walk will make your trip easier and safer.