A Few Words on Canes, Walkers and Fall Prevention

Your dad stumbles a bit or maybe tends to lean on you when you walk across a parking lot. You may notice in his home his hands are trailing furniture and walls as he navigates around the house. So what do you do? You could bring this up at his next doctor’s appointment or you could go to a medical equipment supply store. You could even try a large drug store to find a cane or a walker. That should do it.

Wrong.

For starters many older people refuse to use a cane or walker because they don’t want to look old. This probably goes along with the idea that bad things aren’t going to happen to them.

If they can get comfortable with the idea of using these supports, they will be much safer. Over time most people realize the device helps them to stay more independent. Unfortunately too many people need a fall to realize the assistive device could prevent the next one.

This brings to mind my dad. He had suffered a stroke and was given a walker to help steady his walking. He was actually fitted and trained by a physical therapist while he was in rehab. Once he got home however, he decided it was awkward and bulky. He thought it was always in the way. He used furniture and the walls to steady himself walking around the house. When he went out for his daily walk he would take the walker, but when he went just about anywhere else he didn’t want the clumsiness of the walker. What was he supposed to do with it when he sat in a church pew or went to a restaurant?

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Then unfortunately he fell. He was getting off the local handicapped transportation van for a dental appointment and down he went in the parking lot. He banged his face up pretty well and was bleeding so the dental office called an ambulance for a trip to the emergency department. There he got a stern talking to from the emergency doctor. He was told about the serious injuries seen in the emergency department from people who left their walkers at home. He admonished my dad saying he didn’t want to see him with a broken hip or a head injury because his walker was too much trouble. From that day forward my dad used his walker.

It has been estimated that well more than half of older adults who use some sort of walking support like a cane or walker obtained that device on their own or with the help of family. They did not have the advice of health professionals about the various options or how to use them for the best result. Or perhaps they had the advice of a pharmacist, who by the way, received no training on the selection or fit of the equipment.

Considering a walker there are many options in design. Maybe Sarah at the Senior Center has a walker that works for her so your mother decides she wants the same kind. Maybe that works, but maybe it could work better with guidance.

A person who picks the assistive device on their own may not know about the various choices or how to pick the best option for their situation. Some work better for balance problems, others help when it is useful to support joints from arthritic pain. Then there is fit. Without guidance it is hard to know how long a cane should be or how tall to adjust a walker. A walker or cane that is too talk or too short can cause poor posture and sometimes back pain.

Links to the all-in caregiving site and amazon page to buy book all-in caregiving by Christine Klotz

A physical therapist can assess how a person walks and the risks for falling. Then the appropriate assistive device can be selected. Once obtained it can be adjusted to the appropriate height. And, your parent can be taught the way to use it for the most benefit. Rather than going to a pharmacy and making your own choice of equipment or asking a pharmacist for help it would be better to ask your parent’s doctor for a referral to a physical therapist for evaluation and advice.

You may not have thought about how your parent will use the walker or cane on things like getting in and out of a care, climbing a curb or stairs, or in bad weather.

There are special concerns for people who live in places that experience snow and ice in the winter. This can be a scary time for most people and becomes worse for those who are aging. Fear of falling takes on new meaning. As people get older the risk of injury in a fall increases. Even if an assistive device is not used the rest of the year some additional support in the winter makes sense.

Many walkers have wheels which are much easier to use in warmer months but become slippery in the cold. Leaning forward helps keep weight in the best balance. Brakes, grips and even flashlights can be added to improve traction and safety. Non-slip grippers on your shoes help too.

The first step for canes is to add a wrist strap. If you lose you balance it is easy to let go of the cane, then a grab for the cane can actually increase the risk for a fall. There are specialty items to consider that include retractable spikes that replace the tip and add traction. There are also some specialty cane with hidden spikes that can be engaged with a flip of the switch.

And, did you know you can get snow tires for wheelchairs.

It may be warming up now but it is a good time to learn about the options available to be prepare when summer turns to fall.

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