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How to Help Your Aging Parents Stay Mobile

6 questions to ask before buying a scooter or wheelchair

By Heidi Raschke

For most of us, walking a quarter-mile is no big deal. We do it all the time. But for a lot of older adults, that’s simply not the case.

For them, a trip to the corner store, traipsing from one end of the mall to the other or even just going down the block to visit a neighbor can be painful, dangerous or simply inconceivable. According to the National Institutes of Health, 28 percent of adults ages 65-plus have difficulty walking a quarter-mile and 17 percent find it impossible.

So what to do when your aging parent's chronic condition such as back pain, loss of leg strength or arthritis makes it harder and harder to get around on his or her own steam? It might be time to consider a motorized mobility device.

A scooter or wheelchair can help your parent remain active, self-sufficient and connected to family and friends — all keys to preventing isolation and maintaining a fulfilling life.

And although scooters can be pricey, costing anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars — and motorized wheelchairs even pricier — if a doctor writes a prescription for your parent, these mobility devices are covered by Medicare.

Shopping for a scooter or wheelchair can be overwhelming, so it’s important to know your options. Here are six questions to consider before buying:

1. Scooter or wheelchair?

First, you need to decide whether a scooter or wheelchair is most suitable for your parent.

Scooters tend to be cheaper, and that’s because they have more limitations. Operating one requires a certain amount of stamina, torso strength and arm and shoulder flexibility. Scooters don’t fit on all kinds of lifts, and they’re not designed for transferring patients in and out of bed or in and out of the shower. In addition, scooters aren’t designed for easy access to sinks and door handles.

If your parent can walk several steps and sit upright without support, a scooter is probably a good choice. If, on the other hand, your mom or dad has trouble sitting up without support, a wheelchair is probably the way to go. If you have any doubts, talk through this decision with your parent’s doctor.

If you’ve decided on a scooter, you’re ready to move on to the next question.

2. How big?

Is your mom tiny? Is your dad huge? The weight of the person who will be using the scooter is a key consideration. Some heavy-duty scooters can carry more than 400 pounds, while lightweight models max out at 250. And medium-weight devices fall somewhere in the middle. So your parent’s weight — along with considering what he or she is likely to carry on the scooter — will help you narrow your list of choices.

Weight isn’t the only thing to think about. Smaller scooters tend to have less leg room, so if your mom or dad is tall, you might want to think bigger as well. A good rule of thumb is that those taller than 5-foot-5-inches should opt for a scooter that’s longer than 42 inches to ensure plenty of leg room.

3. How far will your parent go?


Smaller scooters tend to be easier to transport because they fit in a car trunk and maneuver well, but — even if your mom weighs only 100 pounds — that doesn’t mean they’re the right choice.

Smaller scooters typically have cruising ranges of 10 miles. If your mom or dad is an on-the-go type, go for a larger scooter with a cruising range of up to 30 miles. And if your parent requires a larger scooter of the medium- or heavyweight variety, you’ll probably also need a trunk lift to move it from place to place — an additional expense that is not covered by Medicare.

4. What about wheels?

If your mom or dad is an outdoorsy type, consider a four-wheeler with rear-wheel drive, which provides more power and more stability over uneven terrain. Front-wheel-drive three-wheelers aren’t as stable, but they’re easier to navigate through smaller spaces because they have a smaller turning radius. Be sure to consider not only the turning radius but also the length, width and ground clearance of the scooters you’re scouting to make sure your parent will be able to navigate the environment easily.

5. Which accessories?

A basket for groceries? A reacher for picking things up or flipping light switches? Mirrors? A way to accommodate an oxygen tank? Most scooters can be fitted with all sorts of accessories that emphasize accessibility. If you’ve done a thorough job of understanding how your parent will use his or her mobility device, accessorizing should be a snap.

6. Is it comfortable?

Once you know what you want and have a prescription it hand, you’re ready to shop. Start online to find the vendors and stores in your area that carry the scooters that meet your criteria. Then it’s time to test drive.

At this point, the main consideration is comfort. In other words, don’t skimp on the seat, make sure the controls are easy for your parent to use and that the scooter is stable. If you take time to truly understand your parent’s needs, you’ll make a good choice. The last thing you want is to invest a couple grand in a scooter that doesn’t get used — or worse, tips over or causes pressure sores because of poor padding. You’ll know you’ve found the right ride when your mom or dad feels confident, comfortable and ready to hit the road.

Heidi Raschke is a longtime journalist and editor who previously was the Executive Editor of Mpls-St. Paul Magazine and Living and Learning Editor at Next Avenue. Currently, she runs her own content strategy and development consultancy. Read More
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