Walking & Rolling: Mobility Assistance
Last updated: September 2020
My husband stopped the van, parking it in the handicapped spot in front of a shop. “What do you need?” he asked. I understood what he meant — it wasn't a rhetorical question about life, the universe, and everything. He was asking which mobility aid I needed: my cane, my walker, my manual wheelchair, or my electric wheelchair. It all depends on different things.
As I've learned over the past four years since I've been diagnosed with COPD, sometimes you need some help to get walking and rolling. It's taken me a lot of trial and error, but now I know what works best for me and when.
Some people are confused about why I would need any of these, and some people have looked at me funny when I get out of my wheelchair and finish walking to the car or get up out of my chair to grab something on the top shelf in a store. But I don't need the assistance because my legs don't work; I need it because after a few steps I'm out of breath and after a few more steps I'm exhausted.
When I use my cane I feel like I'm a well dressed woman. Well, not really, since I'm usually wearing jeans and a blouse. But I can pretend.
In the Victorian age, Edwardian age, and even later men used walking sticks to signify their wealth, as can be seen from extant photos of the time. A well dressed man about town always looked spiffy, with the necessary accessories of hat, watch, and walking stick. Nowadays, however, men and women use a walking stick — or cane — simply to help us get around. People don't see us as fashionable — darn it — but as handicapped.
I use my cane on days when I'm feeling really good, my breathing is really good, and the distance I have to walk is short. I can lean on my cane for some support and a little bit of rest. I also like to use it when young people come to visit. I brandish it and yell at them to get off my lawn.
You don't need a prescription to get a cane and they're easily found online, or in medical supply stores, or even antique stores and flea markets.
According to Wikipedia via patent records, the first walkers as mobility aids were invented in the 1950s. These were the kind with the metal frame that the patient holds onto, then places the walker a step or two in front of them, and then walks that step or two to the walker. It provides support and helps with balance. I tried out one of these walkers but it wasn't right for me. I have no problems with balance and it made me walk much slower than I wanted to. When I needed a rest there was nothing for me to do but a slow slide to the floor and after you do that a few times people wonder if you need to go home and take a nap. Some of them don't even step over you.
So I chose a rolling walker, sometimes called a rollator. Our good ol' Wikipedia article says that this type of walker was originally patented by Swedish woman Aina Wifalk in 1978. I love my rolling walker. I talk about it like a car enthusiast might talk about a Ferrari. It is a beautiful cobalt blue with big, tough wheels for uneven pavement and not only a shopping/storage basket under the seat but a backpack type storage bag across the back. It's lightweight but strong, has padded handlebars, and dual brakes. It folds up and fits easily in my van. I can walk at my own pace and rest whenever I need to without hugging the floor, which is a plus in my book.
I did get a prescription from my doctor for my walker. If you have insurance, the insurance company may pay for medical equipment, usually after a co-pay. When I was at my disability hearing, the judge asked me if I had a prescription for my walker and I was glad to be able to tell her yes.
I use the walker on days when I feel good and the walk is not too long. I use my walker the most when I'm out and about because I want to walk as much as possible for as long as possible. Use it or lose it, as they say.
This website has very interesting overviews of the history of the wheelchair, with period drawings and photographs of historical wheelchairs and their users. You can see the progression of detail and thought in the design. Ultimately, wheelchairs really started to gain popularity in the medical field in the 1800s and were even self-propelled in the last part of the century. Today they are common, and there are many different models, including ones for different types of sports.
I believe that wheelchairs help people who are disabled to stay connected with the world and their friends and family. Being able to be mobile, especially with one that is self-propelled, keeps us integrated with society. We've got places to go and people to see and things to do.
I did not get a prescription for my manual wheelchair because I did not meet the criteria for it. I am able to walk around my house (which really is comparatively small with chairs every 15 to 20 feet. I also never go upstairs to the attic or downstairs to the basement.) And I can use my legs and don't need to rest all the time so I was not right for a prescription.
I decided to go ahead and get a wheelchair, after talking with my doctor, because there are times I need it to make getting around possible. I use it on bad days when the area I need to get around is rather large, like a shop or a grocery store. I can wheel myself around or my husband or son can push me around. My teenage son loves to push me around (what teenager doesn't want to say they can do that). In fact, once or twice he's let me go in the parking lot and then ran to catch me before I smacked into the van. Luckily for him, he caught me and I enjoyed the ride and could easily have stopped it. Anyway, I don't use my wheelchair unless I really need it because, again, I want to stay challenged and walking for as long as possible. But when I do need it, I'm grateful to have it.
You can get wheelchairs from medical supply stores, which will take your prescription and bill your insurance company. I have also seen them online, sometimes in thrift stores, and once an antique store had one from the 1880s. It was made out of wood with a lovely brocade pillow for a seat and the big wheels were in front while the smaller wheels were in back. I wanted it but it didn't fold up and would take a lot of room in our van. So we went with the smaller modern one, which does fold and fits in my vehicle next to my walker.
I thought electric wheelchairs and scooters were a really recent invention, but after doing a little research I found out that they were developed by a Canadian inventor named George Klein after World War II. This website, and this website, have more information, including period photos of the first electric wheelchair and the plans of design.
I chose my electric wheelchair over a mobility scooter because it is upright, has a very small turning radius, and a very comfortable seat. I also like the controls being at my fingertips while my arm is supported by an armrest, rather than the 'steering wheel' of a scooter. I am only going to use my wheelchair indoors so it doesn't need to have rugged wheels. I also don't travel much.
Mobility scooters are great for people who plan on using them indoors and outdoors, and for people who travel since most of them break down into two or more pieces that are not very heavy. Mobility scooters also usually have a basket so you have a place to put your things, which most electric wheelchairs don't have. Scooters also go pretty fast at their top speed, which is great when you're racing people or running from the cops. :)
I leave the electric wheelchair to the places I know for certain I can't walk around, like Sam's Club, Home Depot, Bass Pro, etc. Another reason I am careful about when and where I use it is that we have to put it on a carrier on the back of our van. It takes an effort to get it on and off the ramp because it is very heavy.
The third reason I am careful with its use is that I love the electric wheelchair very much. I feel like an evil overlord, which is one of my life goals, like Dr. Evil or Blofeld from James Bond movies. I even have a cat who would sit on my lap. Oh, and my lap — this electric wheelchair is so comfortable to sit in. And not having to walk is so pleasant: Other than my lazy streak, there's no shortness of breath, no pain in my back, and these are great things. So I challenge myself to keep walking, using my walker, keeping my strength as long as I can.
You can find electric wheelchairs and mobility scooters at medical supply stores and online. If you have a prescription, the best place will be the medical supply store where you can try out a few and use your insurance coverage. There are many types of wheelchairs and scooters so do some research on the differences and talk to your doctor about which would be best for you.
Which is best for you?
Talk with your doctor about which, if any, of these aids are right for you. Talk about requirements for prescriptions, how far you can walk without becoming short of breath or your oxygen levels declining. Think about where you will be going and how far you'll be walking and what else you need to do on your journeys out. You may find, like I did, that you can use several different kinds of assistance.
Whichever way you go, being able to get out and socialize and be a part of the goings on of everyday life, will improve your outlook and your life.
Good luck and get rolling!
Does your COPD make running errands more difficult?
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