Wheelchairs Are Wonderful

My father just turned 90, and he uses a wheelchair to get around. I want to be sure that I know how to use one so I can lend a hand when I visit. Do you have any suggestions?

Barbara in Wyoming, 64

A few years ago, I had a fresh-faced batch of Geriatric Care Management students in my program. For their first training mission they had to spend an entire day in a wheelchair and try to get around town as if it was a regular day. They had to get to my class, try to make a phone call from a pay phone, get in and out of an elevator, use a public restroom, eat at a restaurant, shop in a convenience store, and so forth. Boy did that mission wake them up to the realities of a wheelchair-bound life. I suggest you try to do the same so you have a real understanding of what your elder goes through, or at least imagine the process.

Safety is an important issue when using a wheelchair. Before transporting your elder, you should become an expert at using hand grips and push handles to climb up curbs as well as descend from them. They also come in handy when maneuvering in and out of elevators. Watch out for common hazards such as uneven floors, cracks in the ground (especially on sidewalks), and gaping holes in the pavement. Wet floors are a danger too, as are automatic doors and elevators. Wheel locks and brakes should always be engaged before your elder gets in or out of the wheelchair.

Always make sure your elder is seated properly in the wheelchair, not tilted to the side, front, or back. Their feet should be comfortably resting on the foot plate, not hanging or dragging on the floor. Their arms should also be inside the armrests or on their lap, not hanging to the side. Seat belts must be fastened at all times. Many don’t realize it, but it’s the law.

Preventive maintenance is also important, and it will reduce the amount of time and money you spend at the wheelchair repair shop. Make it a habit to clean the wheelchair; wipe off spills the moment they occur (they’ll occur often). This prevents movable joints from becoming caked with debris. Also clean and disinfect seat upholstery on a weekly basis, especially if your elder is incontinent. Finally, inspect the tires and spokes, and remove any items that have become stuck to the tires, such as gum, strings, wrappers, and food.

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