How to Choose a Wheelchair for the Elderly

Are you caring for an elderly loved one who needs a wheeled mobility device? This guide will tell you how to choose a wheelchair for the elderly

Nearly 2.7mn people in the US use a wheelchair, of which nearly 1mn are older adults above the age of 65

As one grows older, one loses the ability to move about easily and become more vulnerable. With old age, joint pains and conditions like arthritis might develop. Other medical conditions can also stop natural mobility. 

This is when a wheelchair is essential. Wheelchairs can be used by older adults who cannot move about or even those who need additional help at times or on certain surfaces. 

There are different types of wheelchairs available. It is best to choose one that is comfortable, easy to use, and sturdy. When shopping for a wheelchair, you will find numerous options, which can be confusing. Following is a guide that will help you select a suitable wheelchair for an older adult. 

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Manual vs. Electric Wheelchairs 

The first thing you need to consider before buying a wheelchair is the type of wheelchair. You can categorize wheelchairs as manual wheelchairs and electric wheelchairs. Each has a different set of functions and is suitable for different people. 

Manual Wheelchairs

Manual wheelchairs are the most common type of wheelchairs. They are suitable for those who need to use a wheelchair all the time and have the upper body strength to push it around. These wheelchairs are usually lightweight and portable. 

You can easily fold them and carry them from one spot to another. Following are a few more advantages of manual wheelchairs. 

  • Manual wheelchairs require little maintenance and can be used for a long time.
  • Manual wheelchairs are affordable compared to other types of wheelchairs. 
  • These wheelchairs do not take up much space and easily fit through narrow doorways or passageways. 

While manual wheelchairs are common, they are suitable for use within the home or over short distances. If one wants to use a manual wheelchair over a considerable distance, then it may cause strain on the shoulders. Research shows that 61% of older adults find it difficult to propel a manual wheelchair.

If an older person does not have the necessary upper body strength, an attendant will have to push the wheelchair around, or you will have to buy an electric wheelchair. 

woman on wheelchair on the street

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Electric Wheelchairs

An electric wheelchair is best for those who need a self-propelled wheelchair but cannot use their upper body strength. Electric wheelchairs are usually heavier, but they have several customizable features, like speed and recline. 

If an elderly person cannot walk at all and needs a wheelchair for transportation, an electric wheelchair is the best option. It is suitable for outdoor and indoor use. Take a look at the advantages of these wheelchairs. 

  • Electric wheelchairs can move on different types of terrain, from wooden floors to roads. 
  • Electric wheelchairs are comfortable, and one can customize their features to suit one’s needs. 
  • These wheelchairs provide support and are ideal for those with limited function in their upper bodies but still need to move around. 

Electric wheelchairs are expensive but worth the investment if you require additional accessibility and comfort. However, since they are heavy, you will not transport them as quickly as manual wheelchairs. 

You also need to check the power consumption of electric wheelchairs. While buying electric wheelchairs, check their motor and battery life. You need one that will stay functional for an extended period. 

Choose an electric wheelchair if you can maintain it correctly and if you feel that the user will be able to learn the controls and features quickly. 

man on electric wheelchair

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Features to Consider Before Choosing a Wheelchair

Seat Material, Size, and Height

Wheelchair seats are made up of nylon or vinyl. Choose a wheelchair with a seat of good quality nylon or vinyl as it will be durable. These materials are also easier to clean and do not retain tough stains. You can also customize seats and use different materials. 

To understand the seat size, you need to check the seat width (can go upto 20 inches) and the seat depth. The width is the distance from one armrest to another, and the depth is the distance between the backrest and the edge of the seat. 

If you are buying a wheelchair for an elderly family member, have them sit upright in a normal position to check the right seat size. 

The seat height is the distance between the ground and the seat of the wheelchair, and it is usually between 20 to 21 inches. 

This seat height will be suitable for those who are at least 5 feet tall. Now, if someone is less than 5 feet, you will need wheelchairs with lower seat heights. The seat’s height can affect the accessibility of the wheelchair, so it is essential to get one of the right height. 

Cushion

Wheelchair seats are usually padded and may not need an extra cushion. But you can put a cushion for comfort and support at the back. 

You can use cushions to help a person sit upright and drive the wheelchair easily. There are certain cushions available that reduce friction during long-term use.

Comfort

Most older adults who use wheelchairs use them daily. Therefore, comfort is of utmost importance. It would be best if you chose a wheelchair that is properly fitted. Look for seats and backrests that are not too soft. 

These may feel comfortable at first but will cause backaches. Take the measurements correctly and find the best fit to make it comfortable for the user to sit in it for an extended period. 

old woman on the park

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Stable Wheels

The wheels will hear the entire weight of the chair and the person using it. Therefore they need to be sturdy. Most manual wheelchairs have rubber wheels, while electric wheelchairs are fitted with semi-pneumatic wheels that turn differently on different surfaces. 

Before buying a wheelchair, check the condition of the wheels and find out what maintenance they require. It is best to choose wheelchairs with durable wheels that you will not have to replace after a couple of months. 

Weight of the Wheelchair

The weight of the wheelchair can affect various aspects. A wheelchair that is too heavy cannot be easily transferred. At the same time, a wheelchair that is too lightweight will not be sturdy enough to cover long distances. So, it is best to decide on a type of wheelchair and then test the weight. 

Manual wheelchairs are usually lightweight. If you’re buying a manual wheelchair, select one that is not too flimsy. While you want it to be light enough to be portable, you don’t want it to break a wheel or go off-road. 

Now, electric wheelchairs are usually heavy as they have more features. These are also built for use on different surfaces. But, you do not want a wheelchair that is too heavy to even transport over short distances. If one uses it outside the house, it needs to be carried in, and the wheelchair has to be reasonable for that. 

When choosing a wheelchair and testing its weight, consider that additional features will add more weight. If you plan to attach armrests, leg rests, and cushions, the total weight may increase. 

Height of the Wheelchair

The height of the wheelchair is an essential factor as it can affect its accessibility, transferability, and storage facilities. If you choose a manual wheelchair that is too tall, it may also be difficult to maneuver it.

With electric wheelchairs, this problem may not arise, but you need to check if your feet are reaching the ground. Tall wheelchairs are also quite challenging to carry. Apart from this, you need to have proper storage for such wheelchairs. So, measure the height of the wheelchair, and try to check its use before buying. 

elderly on wheelchair opening door of a car

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Armrests and Leg Rests

Additional accessories like armrests and leg rests are essential for increasing the comfort level, and these also provide extra support. 

You can buy armrests separately and attach them to the wheelchair, and you can also connect them to a table and allow the chair to fit into them. Choose a manual wheelchair with removable armrests. You can take them out and easily fold the chair for easy transportation.

Leg rests are usually of two styles. One type swings, while one can adjust them at a specific height. Now, an additional leg rest may not allow you to transfer a wheelchair as quickly as one without a leg rest. 

So you need to consider if you need the support or want to increase the transferability. If you have an electric wheelchair, you can go ahead and get a leg rest of any style, as such chairs are usually not portable. 

Flexibility

If you want a reclining wheelchair, you need to test its flexibility. It is best to recline a wheelchair when lounging in it. You also need to check how much the wheelchair can recline without affecting the mobility. 

If you are buying a manual wheelchair, you need to check if it is easy to recline the chair and how much effort that requires. For an electric wheelchair, you need to check if the controls are working correctly. 

An elderly person using a wheelchair needs to recline it properly. Otherwise, it can cause neck sprains or other such injuries. 

woman on wheelchair on elevator

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Electric Wheelchair: Battery, Motor, Controls

There are some additional things that you need to look out for in an electric wheelchair. The battery size typically decides how long the wheelchair will work without having to recharge it again. Battery sizes usually come in factors of 12: 24V, 36V, and 48V. The higher the volts, the longer the wheelchair can go.

The wheelchair motor decides how fast you can move. A stronger motor will typically help you move faster. Most electric wheelchairs can move anywhere between 4-10mph, depending on how high the motor wattage is

Lastly, make sure that the electric wheelchair has a joystick-based control on the hand panels.

Finding the Right Fit

Finding a wheelchair that fits is crucial as that affects all other aspects like the range of movement, transferability, and comfort. If an elderly person needs a wheelchair, choose the right fit. 

It can increase the ease of use, reduce discomfort, including sores or pressure ulcers, and improve posture. A wheelchair that fits is also safer. So how do you find the perfect fit? Here are a few parts that you need to measure. 

Seat Width and Height

To find the correct seat width, you need to measure the person’s hips by placing the tape in s straight from one end to another. Then, add a couple of inches more, and the resultant number is the correct seat width. 

To find the required seat height, measure the distance from the hip to the back of the knee when the person is seated. Then, subtract an inch to find the right height. 

Arm Height

Wheelchairs often have adjustable armrests. If you can get such a wheelchair, you will not have to take any measurements. Instead, you can try different adjustments to find the best and most comfortable fit.

Suppose wheelchairs with adjustable armrests are not available. In that case, you can measure the distance between the elbow held at 90 degrees and the seat. 

woman on wheelchair in the dining area

Length of the Foot Rest

The distance between the back of one’s knee and the heel of one’s foot will give you the correct length of the footrest.

Back Height

To measure the backrest height, you will have to ask the user to sit in the chair. Alternatively, you can sit and adjust the measurements according to the other person’s height. You will need to measure from the collarbone to the seat. 

While measurements are crucial to find the right fit, you also need to select features that provide the most comfort. For example, if one needs to do stand-up pivot transfer, then full-length arms are necessary. 

But, if one spends most of the time at a desk, shorter desk length armrests will be better. Similarly, you need to choose the right type of footrest. An elevated footrest will be comfortable if an older adult suffers from leg injuries, edema, or swelling. 

Taller people can choose articulating footrests as they extend further. If someone suffers from a bad back, then high backrests are necessary. Reclining backrests may also help to distribute the weight evenly and reduce pressure. 

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elderly woman with her children

Wrap Up

Now you’ve reached the end of this guide. You can use the information and easily find the best wheelchair. You can also share this guide with other potential buyers. If you have already bought a wheelchair, write in the comments about it and how you like it. 

We hope that this guide will help you in finding the right fit for your older loved ones. Do let us know if you have any further queries or comments, and we shall try to answer them as quickly as we can. If you liked the content, please share it on your social media handles and in your personal groups so that it may help others looking for the perfect wheelchair for themselves.