Options for assistive devices for mobility

Getting around and maintaining our independence gets more challenging every year. During some times of the year, it gets worse by the hour and the weather forecast. Fortunately, there is equipment to help people of all levels of mobility. These items, called assistive devices, are available through insurance or self-pay and can often be found in pharmacies. They range widely in price and upkeep needs, so here is some information on several types.

Canes ($15-$75) are the most affordable option. Traditional straight canes provide stability through the arms and upper body when walking. You can get them with one, three, or four legs at the end of the cane. Heights can be adjusted for each person. You will need to regularly tighten screws and inspect the tips. Replacement is needed if materials crack or warp. Some people do make canes from trees on their property, but if untreated they will not last long.

Walkers ($50-$300) offer a sturdier frame to hold onto. Standard and wheeled walkers have lightweight aluminum construction and are normally foldable for easy storage and transport. Handles, seats and customized accessories provide more support. Check the walker legs and wheels weekly for signs of loosening or wear and tear. Replace tennis ball tips when worn down.

Rollators ($150-$500) are a mix of walkers and wheelchairs, for a more versatile mobility. Larger wheels and rolling motion reduce strain while seats allow resting. Handlebars, handbrakes and adjustable heights provide comfort for each user. Routine brake adjustment and wheel oiling improve the safety of the rollator. Regular replacement of wheels, brakes or seats may be needed if you use it a lot.

Manual wheelchairs ($100-$500+) enable mobility when walking is difficult. Standard chairs are propelled by users or caregivers. Cushions and posture supports add comfort for long-term use. Inspect the tires for wear and look over the upholstery for any tears. Lubricate wheel axles and bearings as the manufacturer's handbook tells you.

Power chairs ($1,500-$20,000+) use electric motors to propel and steer the chair. Those motors may be controlled by your hand, voice command, or a remote control operated by someone aiding you. Options like powered recline and tilt accommodate disabilities. Battery care is key, especially in our colder climates. Perform regular recharging and avoid exposure to extreme temperatures. Lifespan for the batteries is around three to five years. Regularly inspect controllers, motors and electrical connections for damage.

Scooters ($800-$2,500) are compact seated power mobility devices ideal for navigating tight spaces. Handlebars control speed and direction. Transport wheels and foldable frames enable portability. Battery and electrical maintenance is similar to power chairs. Inspect tires and seats regularly for wear. Plan on replacement costs every five to 10 years. Also, remember that the wheels are extremely small and bind up easily in soil, sand and gravel.

Advanced aids like exoskeletons ($15,000-$50,000) and smart canes ($250-$600) are starting to come out now as technology moves us forward, but at a much higher cost. The specialized maintenance needs can be an obstacle as well.

When it comes time for you to obtain an aid, involve your primary healthcare provider so you can pick a product that matches your mobility levels, terrain and desired independence. Selecting the right support promotes activity and engagement. If you will be traveling outside alone, make sure to tell someone where you're headed and check in when you return. There have been times I have called out to help someone in a powered chair or a scooter who got stuck in sand or whose wheel slipped off the sidewalk.

Christian M. Hartley is a 40-year Alaska resident with over 25 years of public safety and public service experience. He is the City of Houston Fire Chief and also serves on many local and state workgroups, boards and commissions related to safety. He lives in Big Lake with his wife of 19 years and their three teenage sons.

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