Is it Time for a Cane or Walker?

cane or walker

Did you know that about 25% of adults over the age of 65 use a walker or cane? According to AARP, the number of those who use a walker or cane has increased dramatically over the last 15 years. So if you’re starting to wonder if a mobility device would help you with safety and fall prevention, you’re in good company.

A good rule of thumb is this: if you feel as though you might need a mobility device, get one. That’s because falls can be incredibly serious for anyone, but especially for seniors. The CDC reports that 20% of falls lead to serious injury, such as broken bones or traumatic brain injury. Three million people are treated in the emergency room each year for falls, and 800,000 of them wind up hospitalized. That hospital stay is usually because of a head injury or hip fracture[1]. Falls become even more serious after the age of 70 or so, when elderly adults are three times more likely to die from even low-level falls[2].

Using a cane or walker can help prevent falls and that can help keep you healthy. But choosing the right mobility device matters. Did you know that the wrong one, or not being properly trained to use the right one, can actually increase your fall risk?[3] That’s why it’s so important to take your time and consult experts before purchasing the walker or cane that’s right for you.

How Do I Know if I Need a Walker or Cane?

Only you and your doctor can determine that for sure, but there are often some telltale signs that may have you asking if you should use a mobility device.

·         You’ve suffered a fall. According to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, many older adults who have already fallen suffer something known as “post-fall syndrome.” In simple terms, this syndrome is a fear of falling that is so significant it interferes with daily activities and movement[4]. That fear leads to far less confidence in walking. And the lack of confidence, and the physical de-conditioning that comes from becoming more sedentary, can actually increase your odds of falling.

·         You’re dealing with pain. Do you have trouble walking long distances because you feel joint pain that gets worse with movement? Do you find it tough to stand up straight because your back hurts? Does your body ache after a day out in the garden or after standing up for a longer period than usual? This can be a sign you need assistance.

·         You have an injury. Even the mildest injury can lead to issues with walking. For instance, a broken toe can make you feel off-balance. A twisted ankle can make it tough to stand without pain. And an injured back can make everything hurt! An injury can change your gait and your confidence, which can lead to falls.

·         You get tired very easily. If you get winded and tired by walking to the car or going out to get the mail, you might need some assistance. When the act of walking exhausts you, there might be an underlying condition that needs to be checked out. In the meantime, using a walker or cane can help support you if you’re feeling weaker than usual.

·         Your balance isn’t what it used to be. According to a review by The Laryngoscope, there are numerous reasons why our balance changes as we age. This might include a dampening or loss of senses such as sight and hearing, as well as trouble with motor commands being conveyed properly throughout the body. This happens to all of us over time. If it’s happening to you, it’s time for an assistive device for mobility.

·         You’re having trouble with your vision. Are you suffering from cataracts or other age-related eye issues that can make walking safely more difficult? Impaired vision doubles your risk of falling[5]. Get your eyes checked out and speak with your optometrist about potential treatments, consider medical alert technology to help you if you do fall down, and get a cane or walker to help you move around without fear.

·         You hold onto things when you walk. Of course, holding onto a railing when you go up or down stairs is just a prudent measure for anybody. We’re talking about holding onto the back of a chair as you walk around the kitchen or leaning on the hallway table as you walk through. If you find that you’re reaching out for stability as you walk, it’s a good idea to consider a cane or walker.

·         You’re feeling side effects of medication. Some medications unfortunately have side effects, such as fatigue, dizziness, feeling lightheaded, muscle weakness, and the like. Side effects like this can put you at greater risk of falls. A good example is feeling lightheaded as you stand up from a seated position. A walker in front of you to hold onto can allow you to stay supported while the feeling passes.

·         You’ve had to call for help. Have you already suffered a fall and needed to call someone to help you get up? Have you found yourself “stuck” somewhere in your home, perhaps holding onto a sofa or leaning on a table, feeling unable to take another step? If that’s the case, you definitely need some assistance with walking.

·         Your doctor recommends it. If your doctor has suggested a cane or walker, there is a very good reason. The recommendation might be prompted by anything from recent surgery to injuries from a previous fall to simply being concerned about how steady you are on your feet. Take this opportunity to seriously consider your options as well as look at aging in place home modifications that can keep you safer. An on-the-go medical alert device can help ensure that you are protected whether you are at home or out in your community.

Choosing the Right Cane or Walker

Not all canes and walkers are created equal. Though you can simply go into any pharmacy or general department store and purchase a walker or cane right off the shelf without a prescription, choosing one that is the right height and has the proper features is the key to making sure you are safe and secure when moving around.

It starts with choosing the style of cane or walker. For canes, the options include a sleek folding cane, a quad cane with four bottom supports for more security, a cane with a strong functional grip, or an old-fashioned C-cane, which is best for those who need only a light touch of support. Materials vary and can include steel, aluminum, wood, composite, and more. What you choose depends upon your preferred aesthetic as well as weight, as an aluminum cane is very lightweight while one made of wood is not. Always look for a cane with a rubber tip on the bottom to provide strong holding power as well as one that has a grip that suits you; for instance, an oversized grip might be best for those with arthritis.

To choose your cane, stand in your normal posture. Ask someone to look at how your arm is positioned when you use the cane. If your arm is straight down at your side, the top of the cane should line up with the crease of your wrist. When you are actively using the cane, your elbow should bend at about a 15 degree angle[6]. This helps ensure your cane won’t be uncomfortable to use.

For walkers, there are several options. A pick-up walker is one that has four legs with rubber tips that sit firmly on the ground. This walker must be picked up to be moved, just like cane does. This could be difficult for those who have limited upper body strength. A rolling walker is easier to move, but could roll out from under those who need to lean their weight heavily into the walker when moving.  There are also three-wheeled walkers and rollators, the latter of which has wheels on all four legs.

To choose your walker, make sure that when you stand up straight, the top of the walker reaches the crease in your wrist. When you hold the handgrips of the walker, your arms should be slightly bent at the elbow. Make sure the walker you choose matches your ability level and needs.

Did you know that a whopping 70% of canes are the wrong height or used incorrectly[7]? That’s why it’s a good idea to speak with a physical therapist about the proper cane or walker that can help you get around safely without leading to the potential of injury.

How to Use a Cane or Walker Properly

When using a cane, make sure to hold it in whichever hand is opposite of the side of your body that needs the most support. If you have an injury, that particular side of your body is easy to pinpoint! However, if you have generalized weakness or balance issues, using a cane becomes trickier – in that case, a walker might be the best bet.

When using a cane, position it slightly to the side of your body and about two inches ahead of your feet. Move the cane forward at the same time you move forward with the weak leg. You’re letting your strong leg take the weight of your body. Then hold the cane steady as you move forward with your stronger leg. This motion can take some time getting used to, so practice it often at home while someone is nearby to assist you if needed.

When using a walker, position the walker about one step ahead of you. Make sure the feet of the walker are firmly on even ground. Holding onto the walker with both hands, move the weaker leg into the middle area – make sure not to step all the way to the front. Push straight down on the handles as you bring your other leg up and even with the first. The move the walker forward and start again. These small steps can be difficult to coordinate at first, so like using a cane, it will take some time to get comfortable.

Are Canes or Walkers Covered by Medicare?

In general, yes – walkers and canes are considered durable medical equipment and thus, will be covered by Medicare. Your doctor will have to write a prescription for the cane or walker and you’ll have to get it from a pharmacy in order to have Medicare cover the device. Medicare Part B usually covers about 80% of your cost and supplemental policies might cover the additional 20%[8].

Keep in mind that a cane and walker can help you avoid falls, but that doesn’t mean they are foolproof. It’s always good to have a backup plan in the event of accident or emergency, which is where medical alert systems with fall detection come in. Fall detection uses small sensors in the device that can recognize falls. The device can then automatically alert trained professionals who will get you the assistance you need. For those who use walkers or canes, medical alert systems with fall detection make good sense, providing peace of mind that can go a long way toward fall prevention!

Alert1 wishes you health and safety!