Wheelchairs offer the freedom to move around more freely and do things that might be otherwise impossible for an elderly person with mobility issues. Whether inside the home or out and about in the community. Wheelchairs for the elderly provide a new lease of life for the person and their carer.
This guide covers how to choose the best wheelchair for an elderly parent. Including a detailed explanation of different types of wheelchairs and the situations they are best suited for, what to consider when choosing a wheelchair for your elderly loved one and what wheelchair features to look out for when making your choice.
Is your loved one ready for a wheelchair?
If your elderly parent does not currently use a wheelchair, they may be reluctant to the idea. It can be difficult to encourage someone that a wheelchair is a good option. They may feel that their independence will disappear waiting for someone else to push them around and be resistant due to preconceptions that wheelchairs are for the extremely old and infirm. And they don’t want to think of themselves in this way.
The reality is quite the opposite. Wheelchairs offer freedom and an improved quality of life. Initial resistance is usually overcome once the benefits of a wheelchair are experienced. These are delicate conversations and ultimately a very personal decision. But, for someone becoming increasingly housebound, a wheelchair might be their only way to safely move around the home, get out to the shops or see friends and family.
Is a wheelchair the best solution for your elderly parent?
As you will see in this guide, there are many different types of wheelchairs for different types of people and situations. Before researching wheelchair suppliers, think carefully if a wheelchair is the best solution for your elderly parent.
Identify the situations where a wheelchair could be beneficial so you have a clear idea of how it will be used. Is it for getting out and about with a carer? Does it need to be folded to be transported in a car? Or will your loved one use it on their own to get to the shops? Maybe it’s for inside the home only, for getting into the garden or transferring between the bed/chair.
If you are unsure how to make these assessments talk to a doctor or an Occupational Therapist (OT) who can help determine if your loved one could benefit from a wheelchair. They will be able to guide you on the type of wheelchair that is most suitable and may even have recommendations of suppliers in your local area.
An OT can also offer skilled advice regarding home adaptations, such as:
- Adjusting doors and door frames – this will depend on the size of the wheelchair and the home.
- Ramps – into and around the house – which can be fixed or portable.
- Stair Lift – this may be an option but will require some significant alterations to the home.
- Downstairs bathroom/wet room – for use with a wheelchair.
Expert advice like this can be invaluable as there are many factors to think about such as the amount of time spent in the chair, its suitability for different weights and sizes, and also considerations for your elderly loved one – for example, do they have skin issues that may impact what type of chair they use? Future requirements should also be considered – as your loved one’s mobility decreases will the wheelchair still be fit for purpose?
Types of wheelchairs for the elderly
It’s important to choose the right type of wheelchair for your loved one’s needs. There are many different wheelchair options available on the market for seniors. Let’s take a look at the different types available:
There are two main categories of wheelchairs:
A standard manual wheelchair is often the first option that people look at when choosing a wheelchair for an elderly family member. Unlike electric wheelchairs, manual wheelchairs either need to be pushed from behind or self-propelled by pushing the handles on the wheels. These wheelchairs can be ideal for both independent users and users who are being cared for by a nurse or loved one.
Electric or motor-powered wheelchairs are ideal for elderly people who have limited upper-body mobility. Electric wheelchairs provide additional independence on longer excursions, as they do not need to be self-propelled or pushed by a companion.
Within each of these categories, there are different types of wheelchairs to suit different people and environments in which they will be used. Here are the main types of wheelchairs within these two categories:
Types of manual wheelchairs
Heavy Duty Manual Wheelchairs
These wheelchairs are designed to accommodate taller or wider adults and usually have a maximum weight capacity of around 36 stone/500lb. Because they can accommodate heavier people, these wheelchairs tend to be heavier as well, making them slightly more difficult to transport or store than a regular wheelchair.
Lightweight Manual Chairs
These wheelchairs are designed to be easily folded and transported. They are typically less wide than standard wheelchairs, which makes them more manoeuvrable in narrow hallways and other tight indoor spaces. Lightweight wheelchairs also have a lighter frame and can fit in the boot of most cars, making them far easier to transport than electric or heavy-duty wheelchairs.
Lightweight manual chairs are a good choice for multiple needs such as transferring and moving within the home and are light enough to be able to be easily folded and transported for trips out and about.
Ultralight Manual Chairs
Ultralight wheelchairs can weigh as little as ten pounds and are ideal for seniors who will need to travel and transport their wheelchairs often. These are not as robust as the wheelchairs mentioned above and usually cannot accommodate heavier users.
Ultra-lightweight wheelchairs are suitable for people who have a variety of caregivers with different levels of strength and want to transport the wheelchair frequently. They are not, however, designed for sitting in for long periods and may be less comfortable than a heavy-duty or lightweight wheelchair.
Bariatric wheelchairs come in manual or power versions. They have wider seats for greater comfort and reinforced frames to provide extra support and stability. Bariatric wheelchairs typically have a weight capacity ranging from 350 to 1000 lbs/25 to 71.4 stone.
Walking Frames and Rollators
While not strictly wheelchairs, walkers and rollators offer standing and walking support to those with mobility issues who have the strength to walk but need some extra support.
Walkers and rollators can be an excellent option for the elderly who can walk without significant challenges but require a little extra assistance on longer excursions. Walking frames are most suitable for inside the home while Rollators suit excursions out and about. Some rollators come equipped with a shopping basket for groceries and a seat, allowing users to take short rests as needed.
Within the category of lightweight wheelchairs for home use, there are also these options:
- Shower chairs are lightweight wheelchairs meant to fit in small spaces, including roll-in showers. Some also have commode attachments.
- Commode wheelchairs are made specifically for toileting activities, with a cut-out in the centre for elimination. Some roll directly over the regular toilet but a basin is also attached.
- Narrow wheelchairs with a tighter turning radius may work best for those in homes with lots of tight spaces and small doorways.
Types of powered/electric wheelchairs
Electric wheelchairs are an excellent option for elderly people who do not have a lot of arm or upper body strength. The occupant uses a joystick or handle-bar style control to operate the wheelchair. They are a great option for elders who want to get out and about in their local community without assistance. One of the best things about these electric wheelchairs is that they can move on any surface, even slopes and rough terrain.
Because of the battery and motors, powered wheelchairs are often heavier and bigger than their manual counterparts and often have to be moved in a large vehicle. However, lightweight electric wheelchairs and ones which can be dismantled and transported in a car, are becoming more common.
Rear-wheel drive electric wheelchairs
Rear-wheel electric wheelchairs have four wheels that give traction when driving. They have two large drive wheels at the rear and 2 smaller wheels at the front. They’re called ‘rear-wheel’ because the drive wheels are positioned at the back of the chair’s base.
That means when driving all the power comes from the back of the wheelchair. This helps users to propel over rough or softer terrain e.g. gravel or mud because it gives a better power transfer from the motors. Wheelchair users often find rear-wheel models comfortable. They offer good shock absorption and handle small changes in gradient well, which results in a smoother driving experience.
However, they have a few key disadvantages. The turning radius is much bigger than front/mid-wheel models. So, they aren’t the best if the user needs to turn in small spaces. Furthermore, they don’t have very good obstacle capabilities. The small front wheels have to climb the obstacle first. That makes it tricky to get up kerbs and other obstacles independently as the power is in the rear wheels. You can get stuck if you don’t have enough power to get the front wheels over the edge.
Front-wheel drive electric wheelchairs
These wheelchairs have two large drive wheels at the front of the chair. Like rear-wheel models, front-wheel power chairs offer a smooth ride. However, unlike rear-wheel models, they are efficient at obstacle climbing, such as raised curbs and low steps. Electric chairs cannot pass over objects higher than their axel height. The axel is at the centre of the wheel. So, having the drive wheel at the front is more effective for navigating over obstacles.
Another thing to bear in mind is the turning radius. Front-wheel chairs have a larger 360⁰ turning radius than mid-wheel models. This can slightly reduce manoeuvrability for individuals who spend lots of time at home and benefit from that full range of movement. If you’re looking for a more ‘all-terrain’ electric chair, then front-wheel is a popular choice.
Mid-wheel drive electric chairs
Mid-wheel power chairs have six wheels that give traction when driving. They have two large drive wheels in the centre and four smaller wheels at the front and back.
The mid-wheel electric wheelchairs keep the user’s centre of gravity directly over the drive wheels, giving excellent stability. This positioning also seems to make mid-wheel models easier to drive. It’s easier to get used to turning and manoeuvring – especially for first-time electric wheelchair users.
The 360⁰ turning radius is much smaller than front/rear-wheel models. So, the user can perform full turns in tighter spaces. The downside of mid-wheel electric chairs is that the driving experience isn’t as smooth. The user will feel the impact of any bumps more than in other electric wheelchair designs simply because more wheels are passing over the obstacle.
Stair-climbing wheelchairs are equipped to ascend stairs where ramps are unavailable. These can be manual or electrically powered. At-home versions, often called stair-lifts, are also available. These are chairs that are fitted to tracks on the staircase for the sole purpose of transporting a person up and down the staircase.
Things to consider when buying a wheelchair
Choosing a wheelchair for an elderly person is always a big decision. Every senior has slightly different mobility needs. Some people may be using a wheelchair as a permanent, everyday mobility solution, while others might just need one for temporary use or for a little extra assistance during trips out of the house.
Before deciding on the best wheelchair for your elderly parent, consider these factors:
- The environment in which it will be used
- Overall weight
- Storage and transportation requirements
- User frequency
- User abilities and body composition
- Features to look for when buying a wheelchair for an elderly parent
When selecting a wheelchair for your elderly loved one carefully assess the wheelchair’s features and accessories. Some important features to look out for include:
The majority of footplates swing outwards or sometimes both outwards and inwards. Having swing-away footplates is important for safe transfers, allowing the carer to stand at the front of the chair without having to step over the footplates. Being able to remove the footplates altogether is also important for transporting the wheelchair as it reduces the overall size of the frame.
The armrests of a wheelchair are essential for support whilst seated. However, they can become an obstacle to transferring, particularly if you use a transfer board. For this reason, many wheelchairs have detachable armrests which can be removed to allow sideways transfers. This can also be of benefit when transporting the chair by making the frame lighter when removed.
An alternative to detachable arms is swing-up arms that pivot at the back. This has the advantage of not completely removing the arm and finding somewhere to put it whilst transferring.
These will normally be manual brakes mounted near the rear tyres. These should always be applied when the wheelchair is stationary or if you are making a transfer. Some attendant-propelled chairs have brakes fitted near the pushing handles. This gives greater control to the attendant and can help slow the wheelchair when descending steep hills or ramps. The only drawback is that the user cannot apply the brakes themselves. Electric wheelchairs should have brakes that the user can easily control from their seat.
The lighter the frame the easier it will be to lift and therefore to put into a car. It will also be easier to push the occupant as there will be less weight and the chair will be more manoeuvrable for anyone pushing it.
Whilst lightest is normally best, the cost of lightweight wheelchairs increases sharply. Most standard chairs are constructed with a steel frame. The more lightweight chairs are generally made from an aluminium frame which can cost considerably more.
Most wheelchairs fold upwards by pulling up on the seat. This operates a scissor action folding mechanism, pulling the wheels together. Depending on the specific type of wheelchair, a range of parts may also be detachable such as the footrest, arms and wheels.
Most wheelchairs have some adjustable elements, such as foldable footrests. Look out for other adjustable elements that might be important for your loved one such as adjustable seat height and back rest.
While accessories might not be the most important elements of a wheelchair they can certainly add comfort and convenience. Some examples of wheelchair accessories include a walking stick holder, weather protection, headrest, storage bags for shopping, cushions and removal lap trays.
Batteries and power packs
Electric wheelchairs need to be charged regularly. Most wheelchair batteries can take up to 10 hours to charge and doing so overnight will mean the wheelchair is ready for use the next day. Be sure to assess the battery and power elements of an electric wheelchair for suitability.
How can I get a wheelchair?
You can purchase or hire wheelchairs from several sources.
Here are some options:
Most wheelchair users will have equipment supplied by the NHS which requires a mobility assessment first. Wheelchairs from the NHS are loaned to the user, and the NHS is responsible for maintenance and repairs. Following an assessment and referral to NHS Wheelchair Services, there may be a waiting time of several weeks.
Rather than loaning a wheelchair directly, some NHS wheelchair services will give a non-taxable voucher that you can put towards the cost of purchasing a wheelchair.
Local charities supporting elderly people
Throughout the UK there are many non-profit organisations that work in collaboration with the NHS, local councils and home care providers to loan home and mobility aids to the elderly. Mobility aids include shower and commode wheelchairs and also narrow wheelchairs for the home. Speak to your GP, OT or home care provider for more information.
Motability electric wheelchairs
The not-for-profit Motability Scheme hires out electric wheelchairs for up to three years. To qualify the user must receive a government-funded disability allowance such as Disability Living Allowance or the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Anyone getting the enhanced-rate mobility component of the PIP can take part in the scheme, providing they have at least 12 months of the award remaining. It’s also open to people receiving the War Pensioners’ Mobility Supplement.
The Red Cross
Provide short-term rentals of wheelchairs for £22 a week. They offer self-propelled, transit, or bariatric wheelchairs for hire. Get in touch as early as you can, as there may be a waiting list at your local branch.
Private wheelchair hire
There are private companies who will ship you out a wheelchair for use the next day, wherever you live in the UK. You can find these by searching the internet or asking for recommendations from your OT, GP or home care provider.
Buy a new or reconditioned wheelchair
Wheelchairs bought privately for someone who is chronically sick or disabled are VAT-exempt. Help towards buying a wheelchair may also be possible from charities or your local council.
Wheelchairs can be bought online, and whilst the price may be competitive, it’s always advisable to “try before you buy” from a local mobility shop. They will be able to offer advice and an aftercare service.
How Trinity Homecare can support you and your loved one
At Trinity Homecare, we have been providing exceptional home care support to the elderly for over 25 years. Our carers are experienced and trained in caring for people with a range of mobility issues. Whether it be temporary care to recover from illness or a hospital stay to long-term support that enables an elderly person to live comfortably and independently at home, we offer a range of services to suit all needs.
Everyone is different and our adaptable and personally tailored care is no different. From visiting care starting at 30 minutes a visit all the way through to live-in care with night-time support. Whatever the needs of your loved one we are ready to support them to live life to the full with our high-quality home care that has been awarded ‘Outstanding’ by the Care Quality Commission.
To find out how we can help your elderly loved one, get in touch today on 0207 183 4884. Lines are open weekdays from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm. Alternatively, make an online enquiry and we will be in touch very soon.