When you’re recovering from an illness or surgery, or you have a condition that affects how well you can move, the tasks of daily life can be challenging. Here’s advice on the strategies and tools that can help you live safely and comfortably in your home.
What is mobility?
Mobility is how well you can walk and move, whether that’s getting to the bathroom or kitchen on your own, or doing fun things like going out to lunch with friends and traveling.
Many people lose mobility as they age or because of health conditions or surgery. When you can’t walk easily or comfortably you may stay home more, which can leave you feeling lonely and cut off from people and things you enjoy.
Being mobile isn’t just important for your independence. It can also help you avoid some health problems, including depression, incontinence, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Plus, regular walking and movement can help prevent falls by keeping your muscles strong and maintaining your balance.
How can I improve my mobility?
The best thing you can do is get physically active.
Do a combination of aerobic exercise to get your heart pumping (like walking or swimming), resistance exercises to build and maintain your muscles (like lifting weights), and stretching to improve your flexibility.
There are many ways to get your heart pumping even if you have trouble walking or are not able to move your body well. You can exercise while sitting in a chair or in a pool using flotation devices. Talk to your doctor for specific exercises.
You can also ask your doctor for a referral to a physical or occupational therapist. A physical therapist will teach you exercises that will help you get moving. An occupational therapist can teach you new ways to do everyday tasks, which can increase your mobility.
What are mobility aids?
Mobility aids help you get around on your own without wearing yourself out or worrying about falling. These aids give you greater independence. As a result, you’ll probably rely less on others to help you with daily tasks.
What types of mobility aids are available?
You might be surprised to learn how many aids are on the market. They’re designed to fit all kinds of lifestyles and budgets, and they range from low-tech to more advanced options, including canes, crutches, walkers, wheeled walkers (called rollators), manual wheelchairs, pushrim-activated power-assist wheelchairs (called PAPAWs), motorized scooters, and power wheelchairs.
How do I decide which mobility aid is best for me?
Your doctor can help you figure out which one is best, and an occupational therapist can help teach you how to use them. (Keep reading for more information on occupational therapy.) Here’s some help to choose the right one for you:
|Can walk by yourself but want extra support.||Cane|
Can walk by yourself but need to avoid putting too much weight on your leg or foot.
Can walk by yourself but need a wider base of support than canes or crutches can offer. You are able to lift and move a walker forward.
Can walk by yourself but need a wider base of support than canes or crutches can offer. You are not able to lift and move a walker forward, or you get tired and need rest breaks when moving.
|Can walk by yourself but get tired on long outings. You’ll have a caregiver, friend, or family member to push the wheelchair.||Transport wheelchair|
Can no longer walk from one point to another without getting tired or without fear of falling.
Can no longer walk from one point to another without getting tired or without fear of falling but mostly need help getting around outside of your home.
Meet the qualifications for a wheelchair, but you need more help to get over surfaces like carpet, grass, curbs, and gravel.
|Pushrim-activated power-assist wheelchair (PAPAW)|
|Can’t propel a manual wheelchair.||Power wheelchair|
What should I know about canes?
- Canes come in different sizes, styles, and materials. They’re usually lightweight, and some can even be folded when you’re not using them.
- There are two main types:
Single-point: These are the most common and have only one point touching the ground.
Multi-point or quad: With these canes, multiple points touch the ground, four in the case of quad canes. They can stand on their own and offer more support than single-point canes.
What do I need to know to walk with a cane?
- Canes come in different lengths, so make sure you choose one that is adjusted to your height to prevent back, shoulder, elbow, or wrist pain. To find the right height: While wearing your regular shoes, stand tall with your arms at your sides. The top of the cane should meet your wrist. If the cane is adjusted to the right length, you should have a 20-degree to 30-degree bend in your elbow.
- If you’re using a quad cane, make sure all four points are on the ground.
- If the main reason you’re using a cane is for balance, hold it in either hand. Otherwise, hold it in the hand opposite your injured or weaker leg.
- As you step with your weaker leg, move the cane forward the same distance.
- As you step with your stronger leg, put pressure on the cane to take some of the weight off of your weaker leg.
- Check the tip (or tips) of your cane regularly and replace them when they’re worn to avoid falls.
What should I know about crutches?
There are two types of crutches:
- Underarm crutches: These are placed under your arms and are generally used for short-term leg injuries.
- Forearm crutches: More comfortable than underarm crutches, these have arm cuffs that wrap around the forearms with handgrips for support. They’re better for long-term use.
What do I need to know to use crutches?
- Adjust the height to keep good posture.
- Place the crutches under your arms.
- Move the crutches forward 6 to 12 inches at a time.
- Push down on the hand grips and step past the crutches.
- Find your balance before taking another step.
- Pay extra attention when walking on uneven or wet surfaces.
What should I know about walkers and rollators?
- Standard walkers don’t have wheels, while rollators have four wheels, a storage basket, and a fixed or flip-down seat. Both can be folded and are easy to transport.
- Standard walkers and rollators are height-adjustable, so always check that yours is suited to you to avoid injury.
- You need both arms to be functioning to use these.
- When using a rollator, put the brakes on before you sit or stand.
- Be careful when moving between carpet and flooring or stepping in and out of an elevator.
- Don’t use your walker on stairs and escalators.
How do I use a walker or rollator?
- Stand with your feet in the middle of the walker, holding the grips.
- Use good posture and avoid leaning forward.
- Move the walker forward until the walker’s back legs are even with your toes.
- Step your weaker leg forward into the middle of your walker.
- Step your stronger leg forward into the middle of your walker.
What should I know about transport wheelchairs?
- You can’t propel them yourself. Transport chairs are pushed from behind by another person, like a caregiver or family member.
- They are meant to be used for short outings, like day trips with your family.
- Make sure the chair is lightweight and flexible so that it’s easy to lift, carry, and store.
- Consider the wheel size. Large wheels (above 7 inches) will work well on rough or uneven ground.
- Choose one with an adjustable footrest and comfortable armrests.
- Some have padded seats, but many don’t. Make sure the chair is one you’ll be comfortable sitting in for several hours.
- Check that your home is suited for a transport wheelchair. Narrow doorways can make it hard to use.
What should I know about manual wheelchairs?
- Choose one that’s lightweight and has adjustable wheels and seating. You may also consider one that folds.
- Get the wheelchair set to fit you so you can move around safely.
- Check that your home is suited for a manual wheelchair. Steps, narrow hallways and doorways, and inclines can make it hard to get around by yourself.
- Ask an expert how to use your wheelchair properly, including how to propel yourself (with long, smooth strokes to avoid stressing the upper body) and how to maneuver curbs, turn in a tight space, and travel down a steep incline.
- Always put the brakes on whenever you’re getting in or out of your chair to avoid falls.
What should I know about pushrim-activated power-assist wheelchairs (PAPAWs)?
Unlike manual wheelchairs, PAPAWs help you get over surfaces like grass and gravel. PAPAWs have special wheels with battery-operated motors that attach to a wheelchair. Sensors on the wheels detect when you need more “oomph,” making it easier to move the wheelchair over challenging terrain.
Because you’re not exerting yourself as much as you would with a standard wheelchair, you can often move faster for longer distances.
Here are other things to consider when buying or using a PAPAW:
- Make sure the PAPAW will move through hallways and doors in your home.
- PAPAWs are heavy, adding as much as 50-plus pounds to a wheelchair. Make sure you have equipment to lift and place it in your vehicle.
- You’ll have to check the batteries regularly. Otherwise, moving the wheelchair could be difficult.
What should I know about power wheelchairs?
Like motorized scooters, power wheelchairs are battery-driven. They’re usually run by a control panel that includes a joystick and set of buttons.
They come in three main types based on where the drive wheel is located: Rear-wheel, mid-wheel, and front-wheel.
Here are some other things to consider when buying or using power wheelchairs:
- You can choose chairs with specialized seating systems: Some chairs tilt, raise the legs, and recline, which can be helpful if you can’t get in and out of a basic power wheelchair by yourself or you need to change positions throughout the day.
- Power wheelchairs usually can’t be disassembled for transport. To get around, you’ll need a van with a ramp or automated lift.
- Make sure it can fit your home before you buy it.
- You’ll need to have your power wheelchair maintained to keep it working properly.
What should I know about motorized scooters?
These battery-powered vehicles come in different weights and sizes and have either three or four wheels.
No matter how many wheels you choose, though, their basic operation is the same. You turn the scooter on and off with a key and steer with a switch. The seat swivels to the side to help you sit and stand more easily.
Here are some other things to consider when buying or using motorized scooters:
- If you have problems with balance, getting in and out of the scooter safely could be a challenge.
- You’ll need strength and coordination in your arms to steer the scooter.
- A four-wheeled scooter will be more stable than the three-wheeled version.
- Check the space in your home before you buy one. Some scooters are so long that they can be hard to operate in small spaces.
You will always need to check the battery before you leave the house to make sure that the scooter has enough power to make it through the day’s events.
Daily Living Tips & Tools
With a few tools and some simple precautions, you can prevent accidents and keep up with your daily activities.
What can I do to keep stairs, steps, and floors in my home safe to avoid falls?
- Arrange furniture so you always have a clear path to walk through any room.
- Remove throw rugs or at the very least, use double-sided tape or a non-slip backing to prevent rugs from slipping.
- Replace loose or torn carpeting, making sure it’s firmly attached to all steps. You can also use non-slip rubber treads on stairs.
- Keep floors and stairs clear at all times.
- Make sure you don’t have to step over wires or cords (like telephone or extension cords). If necessary, hire an electrician to solve the problem.
- Fix any loose or uneven steps or handrails. Also, if you don’t have handrails on both sides of the stairs that are as long as the stairs, add them.
- Install an overhead light and light switches at the top and bottom of any stairs.
What can I do to keep my bathroom safe and easy to use?
- Place a non-slip rubber mat or self-stick strips on the tub or shower floor. Use self-stick strips for bath mats and area rugs, too.
- Install grab bars inside the tub and next to the toilet if you need extra support.
- Use a raised toilet seat to help you get on and off the toilet more easily.
- Consider a bath bench for your tub. It may make it easier to get in and out, and might be more comfortable to sit at chair level than at the bottom of the tub.
- Place night-lights in and around the bathroom.
- Set your water heater to 120 F to avoid burning yourself.
- Unplug any electrical appliances when not in use, including shaving tools, curling irons, and hairdryers.
- Keep a long-handled brush or bath mitt in the shower to make washing less difficult.
- Use medicine bottle openers.
What can I do to make my bedroom safe and getting dressed easier?
- Add a lamp that you can turn on from the bed easily.
- Plug in a night-light so you can see where you’re walking, especially if you wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.
- Consider adding adult portable bed rails for help getting in or out of bed, or for support when changing positions.
- Use a zipper puller/buttoner to manage zippers and buttons, a dressing stick to help you put on and take off clothes, a sock puller to slip on socks more easily, and a long-handled shoe horn to get into your shoes without bending over.
- Ask your doctor about arthritis gloves. They may ease pain and stiffness and allow you to do more work with your hands.
What can I do to make my kitchen safe and simple to use?
- Avoid using a chair as a stepstool. Instead, get a stepstool with a bar to hold on to.
- Rearrange your cabinets so that the things you use regularly are on lower shelves, about waist level.
- Open lids more easily with rubberized discs that help your grip.
- Get items from high shelves or from the floor with a reach extender, which has a magnet or gripper on the end of a rod.
What can I do to make my living room safe and easier to get around?
- Cut back on clutter so you don’t trip, slip, or fall.
- Replace a sagging sofa with firm cushions, which will make it easier to rise from.
- Consider some new furniture: Lift chairs are recliners that tilt forward to help you stand up and sit down more easily.
- Keep the things you use most often within reach of the chair or sofa you’ll be sitting on most.
- Make sure all furniture is secure and doesn’t swivel.
Professionals Who Can Help
What is an occupational therapist?
Occupational therapists help people who are recovering from injuries and surgery, or who are living with physical challenges, find ways to do every day activities. They may:
- Teach you how to use a walker, cane, crutches, or other mobility device
- Show you how to get up and down stairs, into and out of a car, bed, tub, or chair more easily
- Teach your family or caregiver how to help you
- Suggest tips and tools you can use for doing household tasks
- Suggest furniture arrangement and other changes to make getting around your home easier and safer
- Recommend ways to help you keep doing the things you enjoy (gardening, walking your dog)
What is a physical therapist?
Physical therapists are health care professionals who work with people recovering from surgery, injury, or who are managing long term conditions. They aim to reduce your pain and improve your mobility, flexibility, strength, endurance, coordination, and balance.
Physical therapy generally includes some type of exercise, along with stretching, massage, heat, ice, water, ultrasound, or electrical stimulation. Your physical therapist will examine you, talk to you about your symptoms, and create a treatment plan. She may also give you exercises to do on your own at home.
When you have trouble moving around, you may spend more time sitting or lying down. Not walking for long periods can lead to problems with swelling and blood circulation. Those problems can, in turn, make it harder to get your mobility back. Here’s what you need to know.
What is a vein disease?
When the walls of your veins are damaged, blood can’t flow as it usually does. It collects and flows in the wrong direction, causing buildup in the veins, which can lead to swelling, sluggish blood flow, and the potential for clots. Eventually this can lead to a vein disease, which often happens in the legs.
Vein diseases are more common in people who’ve had major surgery or surgery on the hips or knees, or people who sit, stand, or lie down for long periods of time without moving around.
What are the symptoms of vein diseases?
- Swelling in your legs and ankles
- Aching, tired, or restless feeling in the legs
- Varicose veins (bulging, purple veins seen under the skin)
- Spider veins (small red or purple bursts on your knees, calves, or thighs)
- Leathery skin on your legs with color changes and sores
What is edema?
Edema is swelling. It can happen anywhere in your body, but it often happens in your feet, ankles, and legs. Edema has many causes, but it’s common in people who sit for long periods, who take certain medications, or have conditions like congestive heart failure.
If you have swelling in your body, talk to your doctor.
How are edema and vein diseases treated?
Treatments vary and will depend on the cause of your condition and which condition you have, so talk to your doctor about your symptoms. Some vein diseases, like blood clots, are serious and require immediate medical help.
Here are some steps you can take to prevent and manage vein disease and edema:
- Put a pillow under your legs so that they are higher than chest level.
- Avoid sitting or standing for too long.
- If you’re on a low-salt diet, make sure you’re doing your best to follow it.
Ask your doctor if you should wear support stockings or compression socks to keep fluid from building up in your legs and ankles. Support stockings are available over the counter, but in some cases you may need prescription stockings for more compression.
Emergency Alert Devices
What is an emergency alert device?
These devices can be worn usually as a bracelet or pendant, and they have an alarm button that you can press in an emergency. It will immediately alert an operator who will send medical help. It can be lifesaving, especially if you live alone.
You can choose from several different systems, each of which comes with a different monthly fee. All of them are at least water resistant (some are waterproof) so you can wear them in the shower or tub. Some will only work if they’re in range of a base generally connected to a home phone line, but others also have GPS capabilities so they work when you’re away from home, too.