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How To Choose A Wheelchair For Elderly Loved Ones

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Your senior parent or loved one is at the point where they can barely get around on their own two feet anymore. You’re thinking that now is the ideal time for a wheelchair, but how do you choose the right one?

To select a wheelchair for the elderly, the most important considerations are affordability, ease of use, and weight. You also have to decide whether your senior’s wheelchair should be motorized for independence or nonmotorized.

In today’s guide, we’ll provide pointers, advice, and information geared toward helping you buy the best wheelchair for the senior in your life.

Make sure you keep reading, as you won’t want to miss it! 

What Should I Look For When Buying A Wheelchair?

This will be the first wheelchair you’ve ever purchased. You want to ensure you buy a good one, as your senior parent or loved one will rely on the chair on a daily basis for the foreseeable future.

When looking for the right wheelchair, here are some considerations to keep in mind.

Weight

Wheelchairs are no longer merely places to sit. Some come with built-in storage compartments and pouches that allow wheelchair users to bring more of their essentials with them such as medication. 

While these features are undoubtedly nice, they add to the overall weight of the chair.

Only you can decide how heavy is too heavy for a wheelchair. 

Manual wheelchairs can weigh between 15 and 60 pounds, and up to 250 pounds for electric wheelchairs. 

Of course, you don’t have to push a power wheelchair, so the weight doesn’t matter quite as much. 

Remember that you won’t be pushing an empty wheelchair around, but rather a wheelchair with an elderly parent sitting in it. It’s better to keep the wheelchair lightweight, especially if your own physical strength isn’t up to par.

Also consider if you’ll be putting it into a car or van frequently. If so, you’ll need to have the upper body strength to maneuver the one you buy in and out of a vehicle (another reason the best option may be a lightweight wheelchair).

Dimensions

In the next section, we’ll talk more about correctly sizing a senior’s wheelchair, but we do want to put the dimensions of the chair in your head early.

An elderly person may spend periods of time in their wheelchair. If the chair is incorrectly sized for their specific needs, it will impede their comfort.

If the home where it will be used has narrow hallways, will the chair you’re considering be a good option?

Also, think about the wheels. If you get a wheelchair with larger wheels, for example, will it easily slide under the dinner table for an enjoyable meal?

Portability

Wheelchairs, by their very nature, are not designed to only be used for scooting around the house.

Rather, they are designed to help elderly people with limited mobility get out into the world.

Clearly, this means the wheelchair you buy for the senior in your life must have some degree of flexibility and portability.

This goes back to why you should consider a lightweight chair. It will be a lot easier to tote it around to shopping and outdoor activities and load it into and out of your car or van if the wheelchair doesn’t weigh too much.

The chair should also compress or otherwise fold down so it doesn’t take up much room in your vehicle. 

Features

As we made clear before, wheelchairs come with more extra features today than ever before.

While some of these can be skipped, there are some features that you do not want to forego when it comes to purchasing a wheelchair.

For instance, the chair must have foot rests and arm rests for additional support. You might want to think about adding leg rests, too.

Don’t just settle for any rests, though. The rests should be spacious enough for your senior’s limbs to fit and comfortable enough long periods of continuous use. 

Motorized Vs. Nonmotorized

The last consideration when choosing a good wheelchair for the elderly is whether it’s motorized or nonmotorized.

Nonmotorized wheelchair are standard wheelchairs. However, a senior is completely dependent on someone to push them around, be that you, a family member, or a caregiver. 

These manual wheelchairs are usually less costly (more on wheelchair pricing to come!), weigh less, and are a lot simpler. 

A motorized wheelchair (power chairs) gives your senior parent or loved one a degree of independence. They can choose where they’ll go and how they’ll get there. 

That feeling of independence is sure to go a long way toward improving their quality of life, but it does come with a price.

In this case, we mean a literal price. A powered wheelchair costs more than a standard manual wheelchair.

They might also be a little less flexible due to the electric motor and its components, and they’ll weigh more as well. 

There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to buying motorized or nonmotorized wheelchairs. It all depends on your senior’s needs and your budget for the wheelchair. 

How Do I Know Which Size Wheelchair To Get?

Going back to our point from before, sizing the wheelchair appropriately is very important when shopping around.

A wheelchair that’s too large and roomy might seem like a great option, but it isn’t. Your senior can easily slip out. 

The chair will also be bulkier than needed, making it harder for you to push and transport it.

If the wheelchair is too small, then your senior will constantly complain of aches and pains from sitting in the chair.

So what size is the correct size? You’ll have to take some measurements to find out.

Seat Depth

First, to gauge the ideal seat depth for your senior’s wheelchair, ask them to sit in any chair. 

Take a flexible measuring tape and extend it from the back of the knee to the back of their hip. They must remain sitting while you take this measurement.

Once you have the number, take away one inch and that’s the seat depth your senior needs for their wheelchair.

Seat Width

To ascertain the proper seat width, ask your senior parent or loved one to stand. Once again, grab the flexible measuring tape, but this time extend it across their hips.

You’re measuring the distance from one hip to the other. Keep the measuring tape completely straight as you do this.

Add two inches to your measurement and that will indicate the correct width of the wheelchair seat. 

Seat Height

Essentially, having the proper seat height makes an incredible difference in terms of comfort and safety.

Ideally, your senior’s feet should be at a 90-degree angle when seated in the chair with their hips higher than their knees.

Additionally, make sure to consider accessibility – will there be surfaces or bumps that require extra clearance underneath the wheelchair?

Body Type

For seniors who have a larger body type, a heavy-duty wheelchair, such as a bariatric wheelchair with a wider seat, may be more comfortable.

The above measurements will help you determine the best fit for whichever wheelchair you choose.

What Type Of Wheelchair Is Easiest To Push?

As we’ve made quite clear throughout this guide, keeping a wheelchair lightweight is of great benefit to you. 

You won’t have to strain to push your senior parent or loved one all day in a heavy chair. This may permit the both of you to stay out longer or go further.

Keeping that in mind, is there a specialty wheelchair that is the most push-friendly for temporary use if you go out?

Absolutely! That would be either a travel wheelchair or a transport chair. The names are often interchangeable, but there are differences between the two, as you’ll see.

Travel Wheelchairs

As the name implies, a travel wheelchair is designed for all your senior’s travels. 

Travel wheelchairs are foldable and thus portable, and they’re a lot more lightweight than your average wheelchair. That makes them quite easy to push.

Do keep in mind that compared to the standard wheelchair size, a travel wheelchair is going to be smaller. 

These aren’t a good choice for an everyday wheelchair for that very reason. 

Here is an example of a travel wheelchair:

Urge Medical Portable Folding Wheelchair, Travel Wheelchair with handbrake

This travel wheelchair weights 16.50 pounds and has a weight capacity of 220 pounds.

It features an aluminum alloy frame, a seat belt, rotatable arm rests, as well as foot rests that flip up for easier transport.

It has a locking bar on the handles (the rider wouldn’t be able to operate it), but one reviewer noted that the locking bar hits the rider across the back, making it less comfortable to ride in (maybe a small travel pillow would help?).


Majestic – 2022 New Lightweight Electric Wheelchair, Light Foldable Portable Motorized Power Chair

Who would have thought you could have a portable, motorized wheelchair? I didn’t because they are usually very heavy due to the motor and components, but this one “only” weighs 49 pounds with the battery removed.

That’s still heavy, but it’s a great option for a cruise or ride through an art festival or other activity. Plus, it’s airline approved!

The battery gets about 10 miles of use per charge. It has a waterproof joystick and all-terrain wheels (plus, it comes with a tire pump).


Transport Wheelchairs

You may also consider a transport wheelchair for pushing your senior parent or loved one. 

Some of these mobility chairs are part wheelchair and part walker or rollator

Read our guide on how to fit a walker for seniors.

They often feature larger-than-average rear wheels. That makes a transport wheelchair ready for all your everyday adventures with your senior parent or loved one. 

Like a travel wheelchair, a transport wheelchair is very lightweight. These types of chairs are also quite narrow, so it’s not the chair the elderly will use all the time.  

Here are some transport wheelchairs to check out:

Drive Medical SSP118FA-SF Silver Sport 1 Folding Transport Wheelchair

This lightweight transport wheelchair weighs 37.6 pounds. It also has (removable) foot rests, push-to-lock wheel locks (the rider can lock these), and 8 inch high padded arms.

It has a weight capacity of 250 pounds. The closed width is 11 inches.

One thing to note is that it does NOT have a seat belt.


Elenker 2 in 1 Rollator Walker & Transport Chair

This chair weighs 22 pounds and can accommodate someone weighing up to 300 pounds. It’s a combination of a transport chair and a rollator / walker.

It has a padded seat, seat belt and locking hand brakes, plus arms and foot rests that flip up from the wheelchair.

One thing to note: a few reviewers said that this model easily tips forward when there is a threshold or walkway transition, so the rider should use the seat belt and the person pushing needs to keep a firm grip on the handles!


Medline Lightweight Transport Wheelchair with Handbrakes, Folding Transport Chair for Adults

The Medline transport wheelchair also has an aluminum frame. It weighs 23.50 pounds and can support up to 300 pounds of weight.

It also has loop-style manual handbrakes (they cannot be locked by the rider, however), permanent armrests, detachable footrests, and a seat belt.


How Long Does A Wheelchair Last?

As we’ll get into momentarily, a wheelchair is not the most inexpensive accessory. If you’re going to invest in a chair for your senior parent or loved one, is it at least going to last for a good, long while?

The average lifespan of a wheelchair is four years. 

The factors that influence the chair’s lifespan are the type of terrain you use the chair on and its rate of usage.

If your senior is in a wheelchair every single day, then naturally, they’ll wear it down a lot faster compared to a senior who only uses a wheelchair three times a week. 

Do you only push your senior on flat, level terrain such as sidewalks or asphalt trails?

Then the wheelchair has a better chance of holding up for longer than one that’s ridden on hills or other bumpy, uneven terrain. 

Read our article, Are Portable Wheelchair Ramps Safe?

How Much Does A Decent Wheelchair Cost?

Let’s talk about the cost of a wheelchair, shall we?

On the lower end of the price spectrum, you might pay as little as $100 to $500 for a regular wheelchair. 

That’s not too terribly expensive and is usually affordable for most people out of pocket. 

For a higher-quality nonmotorized wheelchair, the upper end of the price spectrum is around $1,500. Some are a little cheaper at $1,000 and others are up to $2,000. 

If you’re interested in a customized nonmotorized wheelchair for your senior parent that includes a custom-fit seat or less conventional features like restraint pins or specialized wheels, then the price will be over $2,000. 

What if you’re considering a motorized chair for your senior? At the very least, those chairs will typically cost around $3,000. 

While it’s not unheard for a motorized wheelchair to cost up to $30,000, a more average price is around $13,000.

Are Wheelchairs Covered By Medicare?

Hmm. The cost of a wheelchair was more than you anticipated, especially if it’s going to cost over $500. Does your senior’s Medicare plan cover the price of their wheelchair? 

According to Medicare’s website, Part B medical insurance will take care of the cost of “power-operated vehicles (scooters), walkers, and wheelchairs as durable medical equipment.”

So what is durable medical equipment or DME? It’s medical equipment designed to improve one’s quality of life, so a wheelchair would certainly count!

However, your senior’s doctor must provide a written order that proclaims they need a wheelchair for medical purposes.

Further, the senior must meet the following criteria for Medicare to kick in:

  • Their supplier or doctor must have visited the senior’s home and confirmed that the wheelchair is usable in the home.
  • Their doctor must accept Medicare.
  • The senior must be able to either have someone help them onto or off of the wheelchair or be capable of getting onto and off of the wheelchair themselves.
  • They must not be able to use the bathroom, get into or out of a chair or bed, dress themselves, or bathe themselves without using a walker, crutch, or cane.
  • They must have a medical condition that makes walking around the home difficult. 

Medicare does not cover the entire cost of the wheelchair, by the way. 

You’re on the hook for 20 percent, then Medicare Part B insurance kicks in for the remaining 80 percent. You also have to pay for that year’s Part B deductible. 

Conclusion 

Choosing the right wheelchair for your senior loved one doesn’t have to be difficult.

Besides the price being a top consideration, remember as well that the weight of the chair is important, especially for a nonmotorized wheelchair. 

Also consider things like weight capacity, wheel type, and padding before making your decision. It may also be worth talking to a medical device supplier or a wheelchair therapist who can assess your needs and select an appropriate model for your elderly parent.

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