Staying Mobile14 minute read

14 minute read

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Updated for December, 2018

As we age, our bodies change, and moving around isn’t as easy as it once was. But just because you can’t do a backflip or run a 40-yard dash in record time anymore, it doesn’t mean you should stop trying to figure out ways to keep your body active. The best way to stay mobile is to not stop in the first place. We can’t always control what happens to our bodies – genetics, emotional health and disease can change our abilities to stay mobile. It’s important that you don’t give up and keeping looking for ways that work best for you to keep you as independent as long as possible.

senior woman using railing

Before you devise a plan on how to stay mobile, you need to figure out how mobile you already are. It’s not something that primary care physicians always test for. If yours doesn’t, then you should consider asking about it. Researchers at the University of Alabama looked at dozens of studies on mobility and discovered there are several common factors that lead to an inability to get around. Older age, low physical activity, obesity, impaired strength and balance and chronic diseases can all play a role. Less obvious factors can include depression, memory problems, a recent hospitalization, alcohol or tobacco use and even simply being female. Researchers found one or more of these can put you at risk for lower mobility.

The University of Alabama study suggests these two questions to test out mobility:

  • For health or physical reasons, do you have difficulty climbing up 10 steps or walking one-quarter mile?
  • Because of underlying health or physical reasons, have you modified the way you climb 10 steps or walk a quarter of a mile?

Researchers say what makes this test so beneficial is you don’t have to go to a doctor to answer the questions.

If climbing stairs or walking any distance is hard for you, don’t write it off and accept it. Discuss the problems with your doctor, because there are things that can be done now to slow down progression and allow you more time to age in place.

Be sure and let your doctor know if you have fallen recently, feel dizzy often or are unsteady on your feet.

Senior Fall Prevention
Falling isn’t uncommon as we age. In fact, the CDC says every 11 seconds in America a senior is treated in the emergency room for a fall. Some falls can result in bumps or bruises, others lead to broken bones. Either way, it’s not something you want to do. Certain diseases, like diabetes, can make you more prone to fall. Diabetics often develop nerve damage in their feet which can affect their balance. Serious health events like a stroke can also make falling more likely. But sometimes, staying on your feet may be as simple as understanding the side effects of the medications you take. Some drugs can cause dizziness on their own or when coupled with another. So be sure and let your doctor know if you have fallen recently, feel dizzy often or are unsteady on your feet.

There are some simple ways to protect yourself from falling at home. Make sure you have plenty of light in your house, so you can see where you are going. Keep your floors clutter free and either secure or remove loose rugs. Get plenty of vitamin D and calcium in your diet to help keep your bones strong. It’s also important to get your eyes checked annually. A change in your prescription can cause you to not see as well as you need to and take a tumble.

It’s not uncommon for someone to use more than one device.

woman walking down a hallway with a walker
If you need something to help you get around, you’re not alone. Researchers at the University of Vermont, Burlington found that eight and a half million seniors in the United States regularly use a cane, walker, wheelchair or scooter. And it’s not uncommon for someone to use more than one device.

Canes or Walking Sticks

Canes or walking sticks may give you just the support you need to keep moving. The Mayo Clinic says most seniors do well with a cane that has a single tip. Quad tipped canes aren’t the best choice overall but work well for seniors recovering from a stroke. You’ll want to make sure it’s the right length for you, so be sure and take measurements. You don’t want to have to slump over to use it. The handle of a cane should come up to about your wrist when it’s positioned on the floor.

It’s also important to find a grip that’s comfortable for you. A grip made of foam or one that’s shaped to fit your hand works well. Canes can cost as little as $30.

Walkers

If you need something a little sturdier, a walker may be your best bet. There are several types. A standard walker has four nonskid, rubber-tipped legs that you pick up to move. A two-wheel walker has wheels on the front legs and is helpful for weight-bearing. Three-wheel walkers are lighter and easier to maneuver and provide good balance support. Four-wheel walkers are best for anyone who doesn’t need to lean on the walker for balance support. A knee walker has a place to rest your knee and it’s like a foot-propelled scooter.

Most walkers come with plastic grips, but foam grips or soft grip covers may be more comfortable. The most basic model will run around $30 but can run up to $150 based on what you choose.

Wheelchairs

There are two types of wheelchairs – manual and electric. Manual chairs are self-propelled, easily fold up and are the right choice for someone who has good upper body strength. On average, a manual wheelchair will cost around $100.

Electric wheelchairs are battery powered and there are a few different types. Rear wheel drive chairs are fast but don’t negotiate tight turns very well. Mid wheel drive chairs turn well but can be unsteady on some surfaces. Front wheel drive chairs are the slowest but turn the best. Electric wheelchairs tend to run several thousand dollars.

Scooters

With the push of a button, a scooter will move you around from place to place. They’re good for seniors who can’t walk long distances but can sit upright for an extended period of time. The biggest question you should ask yourself is if the scooter will be used primarily for indoors or outdoors.

Indoor scooters are usually more narrow, less durable, typically have three wheels and are designed to keep from damaging the floors in your home. They have front wheel drive which makes them easier to move around in smaller spaces. They also collapse easily for transport or storage.
Outdoor scooters have more power, are more durable and can go longer distances over rougher terrains. Some retail outlets have complimentary scooters, but if it’s something you will have to take with you, consider how you will transport it. You will need a large enough vehicle to put it inside or lift onto the back.

Scooters are a pricey investment. They can run several hundred or several thousand dollars, depending on what you choose. In most cases, they aren’t covered by insurance.

Stair Lifts

If you live in a house with more than one story and have a wheelchair or scooter, you may want to consider a stair lift. Depending on your staircase, you will have to choose a straight lift or a curved one. To use a stair lift, you sit in the chair, push a button and the motorized device will carry you up and down the stairs. A straight lift will cost between three and five thousand dollars. A curved lift will cost double that.

Private Transportation Options

If you live in a large city in the United States, there are usually public transit options like subways and buses that can you get around. But studies show a big chunk of seniors live in areas that don’t have public transportation. The Federal Transit Administration funds programs that support transportation services for seniors or people with disabilities in rural areas. Van and bus services are typically available through non-profit organizations in your area. Your local senior citizens center can usually provide more information on what your options are.

Walk-in bathtubs have a door for you to step into, rather than having to climb in over a ledge.

shower-seat
There are a host of other gadgets that can help you stay in your home for as long as possible. Grab bars are fairly easy to install and you can put up as many as you like in your home. The long, metal bars are usually placed in the bathroom, near the toilet or tub. The handles can be fixed permanently on the wall, or you can choose a type that uses suction cups, so you can take them with you when you travel.

Bathtubs can be an area of concern when it comes to failing mobility. At the very least, you should install rubber grips in the bottom of the tub to give you more stability in the water. You can buy stools to sit on while you bathe or you can retrofit your tub to make it a walk-in. Walk-in bathtubs have a door for you to step into, rather than having to climb in over a ledge. They often come equipped with benches to sit on for anyone who can’t stand for long periods of time.

If an oxygen tank keeps you at home, consider getting a mobile one. Portable oxygen concentrators are battery-operated and convert air into oxygen while you’re out and about. They’re small, light and can be carried easily in a bag.

Medical alert systems are a good option, especially if you live alone. You’ll be given a necklace, bracelet, watch or other device to wear at home. The device communicates wirelessly with the system’s central hub. The hub connects to a phone line that alerts an emergency provider. If you fall, pass out, wake up confused, or get hurt and need help, just push the button on the device. Emergency personnel will either communicate with you through the device, alert a friend or family member or send someone to check on you.

hiking exploring
The ability to move around freely or with little help doesn’t just help you maintain your independence. It’s good for your mental and emotional health. Not being able to go to the grocery or to another room in your house can take its toll. Mobility issues can lead to depression and isolation because seniors don’t want to depend on others to help them get somewhere. The truth is – there are people who love you and are willing to help you if you ask. And don’t be afraid or too proud to get a device if you need one. It could be the difference in being able to stay in the home you love for longer.

Sources:

www.health.harvard.edu/blog/two-questions-can-reveal-mobility-problems-in-seniors-201309186682
www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130917161634.htm
www.ncoa.org/center-for-healthy-aging/basics-of-evidence-based-programs/physical-activity-programs-for-older-adults/
www.ncoa.org/news/resources-for-reporters/get-the-facts/falls-prevention-facts/
www.activebeat.com/health-news/more-seniors-using-mobility-devices-study-shows/
www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/healthy-aging/multimedia/walker/sls-20076469
www.agingcare.com/articles/expert-advice-how-to-choose-a-mobility-aid-190138.htm