Does Your Aging Parent Really Need a Walker?
Surprising advice from aging experts
If your elder parent appears a little less steady on his feet, he may be experiencing issues with balance and could benefit from some type of assistive walking device like a cane or a walking stick. Meanwhile, if your parent’s risk of falling is high and they’re very unstable, they may need a walker.
But walking devices may be a hard sell to older adults. They’re associated with aging and dependence in an elderly person’s mind. “The best way to motivate older adults is to appeal to their desire to remain independent, rather than to talk about the dire risks of falling,” says Judy Stevens, Ph.D., epidemiologist at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
Factors that can lead to problems with balance in older people include leg muscle weakness, illnesses, medication side effects, vision problems and problems with proprioception. Proprioception is the ability to know where your body’s position and movement is in relation to the environment. As we age, this sensory ability weakens. “The nerves in their feet are not giving their brains the message of where they are,” says Mary Tinetti, MD, a geriatrician at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., who studies falls. ”A cane or walking stick gives input to your brain of where your feet are through your hands,” she adds. A walker may provide similar input to the brain. But those whose balance is compromised enough to require a walker may not experience the same level of effect.
Remind your parent that a walking aid will allow him to do more, maintain his level of activities, if not increase them. People can typically walk further with assistive devices, which is also good for their overall health.
Mention that there are less “elderly” options than canes, like walking sticks, which are often used by hikers and athletic walkers. Since many falls happen in the home, you might want to convince your parent to at least use the assistive device while at home if not out in public.
Be sure to get a professional opinion before choosing a device
“Just like medications, there are right assisted devices and wrong ones and you can use them incorrectly,” says Tinetti. From 2001 to 2006, an average of more than 47,000 older adults went to the ER for injuries from falls that involved walkers and canes, with 87 percent involving walkers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A physical therapist (PT) can do a balance assessment and then recommend the best type of walking aid. “Walkers take a lot more energy to use than a cane, and there are a lot of people who use them that don’t need them yet,” says Tinetti. Canes differ, some have grips made of foam, some can be adjusted.
The PT will make sure your parent has the right length cane or walking stick, because shorter canes can make them unsteady and taller canes are harder to use. In general, the elbow should be slightly bent. The PT can also show them the right way to use it.
When a walker may be necessary
If a PT determines your parent’s risk of falling is high, she will likely recommend a walker, which provides a wide base of support. Have the PT help you decide which type of walker is the best option for your parent. Some walkers have two or four wheels and ones made for indoor use are narrower. Once you have the walker, the therapist should show your parent how to adjust the height and how to use it. Make sure their home is walker-safe. Create wide walkways and paths by moving furniture, and get rid of clutter and throw rugs that the walker can snag on.