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Mobility Aids – An Occupational Therapist’s (OT) Point Of View

Posted by Mike Phipps on October 14, 2020

Hi everyone, it’s Kate here, Ability Superstore’s resident Occupational Therapist (OT).

For this week’s blog, I thought I would write about mobility aids. There are so many different aids available to help with mobility, that it can all become a little overwhelming. 

As an occupational therapist (OT), I work with individuals who have experienced accidents and injuries, or who have difficulty with everyday tasks due to their age or disability.

As you can imagine, most of the people that I work with therefore use some form of mobility aid. This may be a walking stick to improve their balance, or they may be a full-time wheelchair user.

I thought it might be useful to outline the most common types of mobility aids. I will also give my views, as a healthcare professional, of the benefits of each kind of support and when they might be used.

Walking sticks and walking canes
If I start with a basic walking stick or walking cane. These are essentially the same thing, and most commonly these days, the term walking stick is preferred.

Walking sticks only have one point of contact with the ground, and they come in various styles, including folding and non-folding.

As an OT, I often see people using walking sticks who have reduced balance and who just need that extra bit of stability when walking around. This may be an older person who has had a recent fall and lost some of their confidence or someone who has sustained an injury and needs some support in walking whilst they recover.

To me, the benefits of walking sticks are that they are a very simple, low-cost mobility aid that is relatively easy to use and easily transportable. Such a basic mobility aid can give someone so much confidence when they walk, and I love the simplicity of that.

Extra stability walking sticks
Next up are walking aids that give more stability than a standard walking stick. These products have a three or four-point base and are called tripods or quadrupeds.

I typically see these extra stability aids being used by people who have perhaps suffered from a stroke and have a weakness throughout one side of their body. A simple walking stick would not give them enough stability. In contrast, a tripod or quadruped is more stable, due to its multi-point base design.

The main benefit of this type of walking aid is that they are very stable and give a lot more support than a simple walking stick. I find this type of mobility aid is often not considered, as they are perhaps less well known. However, for the right person, who needs that extra stability, and who can manage this type of walking stick, they are ideal. They are worth considering if you need that ‘bit more’ support than a standard walking stick.

Crutches
The next type of mobility aid to consider are crutches. Most people are quite familiar with crutches and what they look like – they are most commonly used in pairs.

There are various types of crutches available, such as elbow crutches and forearm ones. Essentially, they are designed to take the weight from your legs through your arms when you are unable to fully use your legs.

In my line of work, I tend to see individuals using crutches on a short term basis, such as someone who has broken their leg. They are unable to take the weight through their broken leg initially, but their mobility and strength gradually improves over time.

In my view, crutches are an ideal mobility aid for someone who has suffered a short-term injury to one of their legs.

Crutches are easy to use, low cost and they can be used throughout someone’s recovery. So an individual can progress from taking no weight at all through their injured leg, to gradually taking more weight, to eventually having their leg fully ‘weight-bearing’ and hopefully not needing the crutches at all. Crutches are, therefore, a flexible rehabilitation aid and are very commonly used.

Walking frames
Next on my list of mobility aids would be walking frames. Lots of people refer to these as Zimmer frames, and again, there are various types available including folding, non-folding, wheeled, and without wheels. If you’re interested in the history of the Zimmer frame, why not have a read of our article here.

Walking frames have four sturdy legs on a strong frame and can have two wheels on the front two legs. They are designed for people who need quite a lot of support when walking and whose mobility is generally relatively slow.

I often see walking frames being used by individuals in care homes or in hospitals when they are recovering from an injury or surgery.

As an occupational therapist, I find that walking frames are very common mobility aids. They can provide so much support and confidence to someone who struggles to walk. Walking frames can help to retain someone’s ability to walk due to their high level of support. In my view, they are a reliable and robust type of mobility aid. Put simply, they are strong and steady.

Rollators
Moving on from walking frames to rollators. As with most mobility aids, there are various types of these, too.

There are three-wheeled walkers, usually called tri-walkers and four-wheeled rollators with seats. The four-wheeled variety also comes as a heavy-duty all-terrain model.

Rollators are usually used outdoors; however, they can be used indoors, too (although not the heavy-duty all-terrain model!).

Rollators are becoming increasingly popular. In my opinion, they not only provide support and assistance when walking, but also provide a means of storage and, in many instances, a seat!

There are many lightweight rollators available, making them easy to fold up and transport in a car or on the bus. 

Overall, rollators are reliable and multi-functional. They suit the needs of many people who need some assistance when walking but also struggle to carry items or who frequently need to sit down to rest.

Wheelchairs
If we move on from mobility aids for people who can walk, to aids for people who have very limited mobility, or who may be unable to walk.

I could write a whole blog just on wheelchairs (and probably will do soon!) as there are so many different types available. There are attendant propelled wheelchairs (pushed by another person), self-propelled wheelchairs (when the user pushes themselves along), transit wheelchairs for travel, and powered wheelchairs.

The type of wheelchair that is required varies from person to person and their individual circumstances. If someone is unable to propel themselves and would be unlikely to go out alone, an attendant propelled wheelchair is often best. However, if someone has good strength in their arms, and wishes to be fully independent, a self-propelling wheelchair may be ideal.

Powered wheelchairs tend to be used by people who need to use a wheelchair most of the time, and again, there is a wide range available. This depends on how far the person wishes to go in the wheelchair and whether they would be using it indoors or outdoors.

In my day-to-day work, I see many wheelchair users. I work with individuals who use a wheelchair all of the time, perhaps due to an amputation of their lower limbs or due to a spinal cord injury meaning that they are unable to walk.

I also work with many people who can walk around their own home, but who always use a wheelchair when they are outdoors. I see all shapes, sizes, colours, and designs when it comes to wheelchairs – there are many makes and models available.

In my view, wheelchairs nowadays are amazing, as there are so many different options available. They provide a safe means of people getting out and about, and I see, first hand, the level of freedom and independence a wheelchair can give.

There are many options in terms of lightweight and foldable wheelchairs, meaning they can easily be transported for days out or even holidays. Wheelchairs are a fantastic mobility aid for those requiring a high level of support and assistance when it comes to their mobility. They are a safe and reliable way of getting around.

Mobility scooters
Last but not least, mobility scooters. Again, this could be another blog article in itself, but essentially, a mobility scooter is for outdoor mobility. There are Class 2 scooters which include pavement and boot scooters. These are for non-road travel, up to a maximum speed of 4mph. There are also Class 3 scooters that can be used on the road and can go to a maximum of 8mph on the road.

People often ask me, “What is the difference between a powered wheelchair and a mobility scooter?” Generally, I would say that a mobility scooter is for outdoor use and for someone who is mostly able-bodied and has good trunk and arm strength to keep themselves in a seated position for some time. A powered wheelchair, however, is more for someone with both reduced mobility and reduced body strength. The wheelchair would be more customised to the individual’s needs and would provide better support whilst they are seated. Powered wheelchairs can also be used indoors.

So, there are a wide variety of mobility scooters available depending if the scooter needs to be folded and transported in a car, and the type of terrain on which it will be used.

I find that mobility scooters are becoming increasingly popular. I work with many individuals who have a mobility scooter to enable them to go out in their local area, to get around the shops, or to visit their family and friends.

As an OT, I love mobility scooters, as they can provide someone with limited mobility a means of being able to get out and about safely and independently. They are straightforward to use and can provide such freedom and independence.

So, this has been a start at a look at the most commonly seen mobility aids. There are literally thousands of different mobility aids, and this term also covers many smaller daily living aids which I’ll cover in a separate article.

For more information or any advice on mobility aids, you can contact me directly via kate-ot@abilitysuperstore.com