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How To Assist Elderly With Walking

Walking is something we do every day and we all take for granted. It’s only when you cannot walk as well anymore, such as with age, that you realize what a gift it is.

You may be dealing with an elderly parent or other older adults who are having a hard time maintaining their mobility. How can you help them walk?

To assist the elderly with walking, make sure you do the following:

  • Get them the right walking aid
  • Help them strength train and work on their balance 
  • Make sure they’re following a healthy diet
  • Be there with them as they walk, bracing your hands on their shoulder or waist on whichever side is weaker

In this article, we will elaborate on the above tips, explaining the importance of each one in detail.

We will also cover a variety of walking aids, including canes, quad canes, and walkers.

If you’re debating which walking aid would best suit a senior with mobility problems, you should know by the time you’re done reading.

4 Tips For Helping Seniors To Walk

Many older people avoid taking long walks fearing that they will not be able to complete the task, but if the “walk” is peppered with places to sit and rest so that you can pause and rest – the task may be doable, barring any other medical conditions.

As functional ability declines, walking long distances might become a harder and scarier task than before. In such a case, it still remains important to continue covering long distances by walking, even if with walking aids or by pausing walking, in order to maintain outdoor mobility.

Below are a list of my 4 tips on how you can help an elderly person walk as they use their mobility aid of choice.

1. Choose The Right Walking Aid

First and foremost, you can’t expect elderly people with limited mobility to walk without any kind of assistance.

It isn’t safe and not using one can lead to a fall, along with the potential for broken bones or worse.

Yes, sometimes that assistance means your physical presence is required, but what if you’re not there to help? With a mobility device, your senior family member can feel relatively confident that they can get around on their own.

We’re going to talk more about walking aids later in this article, so make sure you keep reading.

For now, we’ll say there are different types of walking aids out there with different functions.

It’s a good idea to get an assessment by a physical or occupational therapist before choosing one, though, so you know that your senior has the best option for their specific mobility limitations.

2. Engage The Senior In Strength And Balance Training

The worst thing that could happen to your senior when walking on their own is a fall, right?

Especially because, as you may remember from reading other articles on this blog on fall prevention, elderly individuals who fall once have a better chance of doing so again.

A senior with a strong core and good balance will feel steadier on their feet, thus reducing their risk of falling.

Both strength and balance training can help provide additional stability.

This may mean that the older person hires a personal trainer or participates in an exercise program at a facility, like a gym, at least three times a week to boost their lower body strength.

Another good option is to see a geriatric physical therapist.

One of the benefits of physical therapy for seniors is that the therapist can tailor an exercise plan tailored to the individual’s strength and abilities.

For balance training, it’s crucial to focus on the hips, buttocks, back, and core / abdominal muscles.

Your senior can also do a slew of exercises at home to work on and refine their balance.

These include back leg raises, side leg raises, and foot balancing, in which they rely on one foot for their balance while holding onto a counter or the back of a chair for additional support.

With a more muscular frame and a tighter core, your senior will have greater flexibility. In turn, they may find it easier to walk.

At the very least, they’ll be in a better position to walk on their own than someone who doesn’t engage in strength and balance training.

3. Maintain A Nutritious Diet

In keeping with their health, your senior should also watch their diet.

Not only does being overweight boost one’s chances of getting some cancers, heart disease, and diabetes, but it also makes it harder to walk.

Imagine walking at your normal body weight. Now, picture yourself carrying a 50-pound ball around and trying to walk. It’s not so easy, is it?

You can’t put the ball down either, because the “ball” is a part of you. That’s the difficulty your senior faces when walking if they’re overweight – especially if they are obese.

By cutting out junk food and sugary beverages, your senior may lose some pounds without really trying.

Through a combination of more nutritious, healthy meals and regular exercise, more weight should come off.

4. Walk With The Elderly, Favoring The Side That Is Weaker

Family caregivers may also choose to do some regular walking with their senior when they can. If the person feels unsteady on their feet, the caregiver can brace their body while focusing on whichever side is weaker.

If the older person just needs a little help, you can gently take their arm or have them hold yours.

If they need a lot of help, hold onto their belt/waistband – or for better stability, use a gait belt.

To use a gait belt:

  • Fasten it around the person’s waist
  • Be sure it is snug, with only enough room for you to slide your fingers under it
  • Hold the person by the gait belt at their waist (not by their shoulders or arms)
  • Guide them using your leg muscles or your arms. Don’t use your back muscles or you may injure yourself.

Our OT likes this particular type of belts because they are wide enough that if the user were to stumble or fall, the grasp and pull on the belt would not dig into their skin and harm them.

If your senior insists on walking without anyone to guide them, then you don’t want to let them get too far ahead of you. Stick close to their side and keep an eye on them.

If they seem like they’re wavering or they look uncomfortable, offer to take a break or walk with them.

Walking Aids For The Elderly

As we touched on earlier, walking aids can make a big difference in mobility for seniors.

They may be able to walk greater distances or just feel steadier when standing.

Not all walking aids are the same, though, which is why we thought we’d talk about the different types now.

1. Canes

First off, we’ve got the classic cane. While they may all look the same to the uninitiated, that’s not quite the case.

You can select from three types of canes for your senior: offset canes, multi-tip canes, and standard canes.

We’ll talk about multi-tip or quad canes more in the next section, so let’s focus on offset and standard canes for now.

Standard canes have a hook shape and one bottom tip. The tip provides support as it connects with the ground.

The drawback to standard canes is that they usually are not adjustable and a cane needs to be the right height for the user or they could injure their back or shoulder.

To choose the correct height, have the senior stand with their arms loosely at their sides while wearing their normal walking shoes.

Measure from the floor to the crease in their wrist, where the wrist flexes.

Read more: How tall should a cane be?

Offset canes, as the name suggests, offset a senior’s weight, distributing it more towards the cane. It’s the cane’s shaft that bears the brunt of the weight as your senior walks.

Generally, offset canes are adjustable to the correct height for the senior’s needs.

Cane handles are unique as well. Your senior might favor a thumb-stick cane, which has a handle in a Y shape with grooves for gripping.

Fischer handles, suitable for those with carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis, match the palm’s contouring for hours of comfortable use.

Fritz handles, ideal for seniors with arthritis, have a specialized grip and shape that feels good on stiff fingers.

Some canes even come with seats so the senior can stop and take a break no matter where they go. This type of cane has three legs with a folding seat attached.

The drawback to these canes is that they are unwieldy and could easily get tangled in the person’s feet, causing a fall.

Also, the senior who uses one must have good balance because they will be “perching” on the seat (some people straddle the seat) – it isn’t as stable as a four-legged chair would be.

For nighttime safety, your senior can even get an aluminum alloy cane with a light in the handle!

2. Quad Canes

We said we’d get back to quad canes, and now we will.

Quad canes work best for elderly patients that have had or do have vertigo, partial paralysis, hemiplegia, and/or stroke.

The base of a quad cane has four legs for better stability when walking.

Each leg has a tips and the tips are arranged in either a K or an X shape to further enhance that stability.

You may opt to get a quad cane for your senior with a larger or smaller base.

The bigger the cane, the more stable it generally is, but these large bases can be unwieldy, so keep that in mind.

3. Walkers

Besides canes, you might try a walker for your elderly parent or the senior you take care of.

Also known as walking frames, walkers are recommended for those with more severe mobility issues.

Standard walkers have a metal frame that goes up to the senior’s waist. They typically come in one size, with a depth of about 12 inches.

That said, for obese seniors, there are bariatric walkers that have a greater depth and can support up to 500 pounds.

You can adjust most walkers, switching the height higher or lower as needed. By bending their arms to use the walker, seniors can maintain proper blood flow to their hands and arms.

Using the walker can prove difficult for some, as the senior has to lift the walker and then place it down for each step they take.

That can become taxing, especially for an elderly user who doesn’t get a lot of physical activity. That said, some walkers do come with wheels for easier maneuvering.

4. Rollator Walking Aid

In the same vein as walkers, another walking aid you might want to consider for your senior is the rollator. As a type of rolling walker, rollator walkers always have wheels. They also include brakes.

Rollators also don’t require the lifting and placing on the ground of a traditional walker, making them easier to use by design.

Somewhat bigger than most walkers, it should be noted that rollators sometimes can prohibit a senior from traveling in tight hallways and entryways.

Usually you’ll find rollators that come with a padded seat which lifts to provide storage underneath.

Your senior can use this storage as a means of stowing items such as a purse, a water bottle or a sweater, or even bringing a small oxygen tank with them when they walk.

If you can’t choose between a standard walker and a rollator walking aid for your senior, you don’t necessarily have to.

You can opt to buy a hybrid rolling walker. This is basically a front-wheeled walker.

While the senior does have to lift the walker, they can also slide or scoot it after they do.

What Should You Avoid When Assisting A Person To Walk?

When helping someone to walk, the last thing you want to do is cause them harm or discomfort.

It’s crucial to give adequate support to the person while walking to avoid any falls or accidents and to remember that you are there to assist, not take over.

One thing that should be avoided is pulling on the person’s arms or shoulders as this can cause pain or even dislocation.

Also avoid sudden jerky movements, pushing or pulling too hard, stepping out of sync with the person being assisted, or not providing enough support.

Lastly, don’t force a person to walk faster than they are comfortable with, as this can lead to falls or further injury.

Remember to always communicate and work with the person you are assisting to make the experience as safe and comfortable as possible. Overall, being mindful and cautious are the keys to safely assisting someone while walking.

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