You’ve decided that the time has come to invest in a mobility walking aid.
But which to choose? And how do you use it?
How do you get the right one for you?
This post will help you choose.
What are my options?
There are a range of different options out there, so I have summarised the main ones below, to help you make a decision about what might be right for you.
If you can get professional help, including an assessment, that is great. But that’s not always on offer. If it isn’t, I suggest you try a range of different products to see how they work for you before you go ahead and purchase.
Some of the larger mobility stores have a range of products on display so you can try them out. Some of them also hire out equipment, so you can try it for a longer period before you buy.
These are the main options:
Walking and trekking poles
Trekking or hiking poles or sticks are designed to help hikers with rhythm and stability on rough terrain. Used in a similar way to ski poles, they can help on flat or hilly surfaces by engaging your arms to help move you forward or upwards.
Using a set of poles reducing the physical impact of hiking on both your knee joints and leg muscles – and can have a preventative effect too by avoiding strain on your knees. Used correctly, poles enable you to use your upper and lower body, creating more rhythm in your walking which helps your cardiovascular system and increases your stamina. Which all means you can hike for longer.
When you walk using poles, you have two extra contact points with the ground, making you feel more stable and supported. Poles also improve posture, by keeping your body more upright.
When you are out on a hike, you probably need your hands for all sorts of things – looking at your map, wiping your brow, having a drink. All difficult if you have both hands full of poles!
There is a proper way to use them, and this can be tricky to learn. If you want to try, best to get some expert tuition so that you are using the poles correctly.
Walking sticks and canes
Standard cane/walking stick
An ordinary walking stick or walking can should only really be used to help with balance and to help you stand more upright when you walk.
You can also buy canes with more support at the bottom in the form of a platform of prongs, which makes up a wider surface. This offers more stability if you need help walking. For all types of canes, you should only be putting up to 20% of your body weight on it. If you need more support, then you should use something else, such as a walker or crutches.
If you decide a cane is what you need, make sure it is the right height. Most canes are adjustable through the use of a pin that you push in and then move the sections up and down to adjust the height. The top of the cane should be just below your hip bone, and your elbow should be slightly bent.
You hold the cane in the opposite hand of the affected or injured side. And the cane moves with the affected side. My right leg is more badly affected than my left, so when I used a cane I held it in my left hand. When my right leg went forward, so did the cane. This takes practise! But I found the best thing was just to relax and let the cane following my natural walking pattern. You normally swing your arms when you walk, so let the cane go with your arm. I soon found this too difficult, and instead I had to move the cane and my ‘bad’ leg forward, and bring my ‘good’ leg in line with the cane.
Portable, available in a range of styles and sizes, including folding versions. Inexpensive, easily available and provide invaluable help and reassurance both indoors and out.
Can cause additional problems if you favour your ‘good’ side. Always fall over when you put them down! No good if you need more than a little support.
A friend of mine has weaknesses in both her legs and back problems, but she’s still very young. She prefers crutches, not only because they make her feel safe and help her walk more upright, but also because when using crutches, people just assume that she’s had a sports injury, and they treat her differently than when they think she has a permanent disability. We could have a huge debate on what that says about society’s attitudes towards disability, but that’s a discussion for another day!
Crutches are useful if your condition affects both sides, if you have to support more than 20% of your body weight on your walking aid, or if you find that you’re leaning over too much using a cane.
Like canes, it is important to get the right height if you are going to use crutches. The top of the crutch should be a couple of inches below your armpit – so that you don’t press on the nerves in your armpit. Your elbow should be slightly bent and the crutches should be slightly out to the side to provide some stability.
If you just use one crutch, then you should use it in the same way as you would use a cane, i.e. hold it on your ‘good’ side and move the crutch and your weaker/injured leg forward together.
There are different types of crutches – the axillary crutch, which goes under your arms. The forearm crutch/elbow crutch – this allows your arm to bear greater weight. The platform or triceps crutch which goes under your arm, but also has a cuff which goes below the back of the elbow – this provides extra stability. A strutter crutch is an underarm crutch, like the axillary crutch, but it has larger tips that remain flat on the floor. This helps you distribute your weight more evenly and makes your walking gait more even.
And I’ve never actually seen anyone use one of these, but you can get a leg support crutch, which is used if you have an injury to one leg, usually below one knee. Your affected leg is effectively strapped into a frame on wheels, usually while it heals.
Help you support your weight (using your hands, not your under-arms!), and you can walk more uprightly. Make you feel safer and more stable.
Can cause strain on your wrists, as you put a lot of pressure on them as you swing your body through the crutches. Can be a bit uncomfortable, and are difficult to store when you are out and about. Use both your hands so difficult for shopping.
If you have difficulties walking, or with your balance, the additional burden of carrying shopping may be just too much. There are a range of shopping trolleys available to help you bring home your shopping, and many are designed to offer you extra stability too. Another feature which a lot of people find helpful is that many trolleys incorporate a seat. This is really useful if you’re waiting for a bus or train, or in a queue, or just feel a bit tired, sore or dizzy. You can have a rest and then carry on with your shopping trip.
Most are lightweight, hold a lot of shopping and offer a useful place to sit down. They also offer a bit of extra stability if you don’t have too many problems, but suffer from fatigue, dizziness, or perhaps joint pain. Some have insulated linings if you’re bringing back chilled goods from the shops. Affordable and accessible.
Can be a bit cumbersome to manoeuvre around some shops. They do have an image problem – and are often advertised for “the elderly or mobility challenged”.
Walking frames, also known as Zimmer frames, have four legs, and are used to provide additional support to maintain balance and stability when walking. They are often used as a rehabilitation tool, when someone is recovering from an injury, or an operation. They are also a long-term or permanent option for people who have difficulty walking unassisted.
As a rehabilitation aid, walking frames are useful to get people back up and walking, providing extra confidence and stability, and helping the person using it to put more weight on their affected leg(s) and then progress onto crutches or canes.
Like other aids it is important to get the right height for the user – you need to be able to straighten your elbows so you can take your body weight away from your legs. But if the frame is too low, you can suffer from poor posture as you will probably bend over when you’re walking.
It’s also important to measure the width of the frame and ensure it will get through the doors in your house easily, with enough room so you don’t crush your hands as you’re going through.
When using a walking frame, weight is distributed through the user’s arms, and away from their legs. This prevents fatigue, and the wide base of the frame gives a lot of stability. You can get different versions, such as ones with wheels on the front for people who struggle to lift the frame with each step. Also, there are walking frames with forearms support rather than handgrips. This is helpful for people who have problems in their hands (such as arthritis) and would find gripping the frame difficult.
Frames are easily accessible and fairly affordable. There are folding versions that you can take with you when travelling.
Walking frames are not very manoeuvrable or portable (even the folding versions). If you live in a small place they will often be in the way, and they are no help if you have to navigate steps or stairs. As you have to lift the frame with each step, they aren’t that helpful to people with problems in their arms.
They are probably more suitable to a period of rehabilitation rather than long-term use.
There is a bit of an image problem with a walking frame, but when you need help to get around, a rollator may be a viable option. Rather than having four legs, like a walking frame, a rollator has four wheels and a brake. This means you push them, rather than lift them, so they are much easier for people who also have upper-body issues.
A tri-walker is a different version of a rollator, having just 3 wheels instead of four. The advantage of that is they are easier to use where there is less space. Some tri-walkers are incredibly light, and foldable, which does make them portable. They come with a range of accessories, including seats, bags, trays, even mobile phone and cup holders!
Although I have personally used walking aids outdoors for a number of years, I have only recently invested in an indoor walking aid. Normally I hold onto the furniture or walls when walking around indoors, but I found this stopped me from doing simple things, such as bringing in a tray or tea when I had visitors.
My husband bought me a trolley with two trays, which has brakes similar to a rollator, and can be used as a walking aid and for transporting items around the house.
I must admit that I was initially horrified by the sight of the trolley that he bought me. Two beige melamine trays on a beige frame. Not sassy, not stylish, and I resisted using it for some time. However, I was going through a flare up, and struggling to both get around and do simple household tasks, so I thought I’d give it a go. And I must say, it really is one of the most useful items that I have. For example, when I’m cooking I go into my pantry, fridge and cupboards, collect all the ingredients and utensils that I need and then sit down to cook. We have a young dog who scatters toys all the floor. With my grabber and my trolley, I pick them up in no time, and return them to his toy box. I put polish, dusters and glass cleaner on the trolley and whiz around my housework. When visitors come I put all the tea/coffee supplies on the trays and wheel it out to the sitting room – no spills, and I don’t have to get someone else to carry the tray for me. I even take it into the garden to both help me walk around, and I place my secateurs, gardening gloves etc. on the tray and do some dead-heading or weeding when I’m out there.
I am considering re-spraying it a nicer colour, but when it’s ‘parked’ I place coffee table books or magazines on it, and so that hides the beige-ness a bit! Luckily there are some more stylish ones available now, so it is well worth considering if you do struggle to get around indoors.
I’ve increasingly noticed the introduction of all-terrain rollators, designed for hiking and trekking. They have larger wheels, to enable you to walk over rough terrain such as hills, grass, pebbles, dirt roads, cobbles etc. They also have extra-secure brakes, in case you want to park on a hill, and usually have a large seat and storage area, so you can taking along waterproof equipment and a picnic.
All terrain walkers are more strongly built than regular rollators, and are larger – but they are designed to be used off the beaten track, rather than in town. (Although of course they would work in city areas, but as they are larger they are not as handy as a regular rollator).
I haven’t personally used an all-terrain walker, but they look great for people who want to carry on (or re-start) hiking for fitness and enjoyment, but who need a little support to do so. They are heavier than regular rollators, and larger, so that needs to be considered when you think about transporting them. There are even versions that help you carry golf clubs, meaning that mobility issues needn’t stop you from enjoying a round.
Rollators have swivel wheels which makes them manoeuvrable and faster than a walking frame. They come in a range of styles and designs, so you can usually find one that suits your need. They often fold, so are portable, and most include a seat and a shopping bag or basket, so they are practical when you’re out and about too. If you get tired, or sore when you are walking, it’s often a relief to have somewhere to sit. The brakes make them stable, but if you are going to sit on your rollator, it is best to position the back against a wall just in case it moves.
Rollators are designed for people who need a minimal amount of support when walking, so they aren’t that useful if you have major problems. Even when folded, they can be a little tricky to get in and out of a car, or on and off a bus or train, especially if you have shopping or other items stored in it.
Things to consider when deciding whether to invest in a mobility walking aid.
Something that meets your needs
Firstly, the level of your disability, and how much help and support you need. Don’t get something that doesn’t provide enough support, but similarly, if you just need an extra bit of reassurance, don’t go for something that is more cumbersome than you need.
At some point you will have to lift your mobility aid. This might be to get it over a step, or into a bus or car, but if it’s too heavy for you to lift, then it will cause problems when you’re using it. So make sure you check out how heavy the equipment is, and whether you can manage to lift it before you purchase.
Similarly, if you are planning to transport your aid, then you need to make sure it fits in your car, and is easy to lift in and out. I’ve found from experience that if an aid isn’t portable, then it rarely gets used.
Following on from portability, it’s a good idea to think about when and how you’ll use your mobility aid, and check that it’ll be convenient. When I first got a tri-walker, I travelled by train a lot. The tri-walker was great because it was very light to lift on and off, but I really could have done with one with a seat (which mine didn’t have) because sometimes (often) the train was over-crowded, and I really suffered trying to stand.
Also, I used to carry a briefcase with me – and it would have been helpful it I could have stowed that within the walker, leaving my hands free to grasp the walker’s handles. But it didn’t fit, and I often found it hard to juggle both, especially on a busy train concourse.
I love the rollator that I have now, but it doesn’t fit in the boot of my car, so I have to stash it behind the front seats. It’s often tricky to get it in if the wheels swivel – and if my legs are tired I can’t stand for long. So that does put me off using it if I’m out on my own. I had intended to use my rollator both indoors and outdoors, but my rollator doesn’t fit through the majority of my internal doors, so I needed something else for indoors. I would have preferred one aid which would have met both needs.
If you already have, or are developing, mobility problems, then you probably suffer from pain too. Therefore comfort is a necessity, not a luxury, and so you want to make this a priority when you choose what to buy. It’s not just things like seats which are important, but handle-grips, height, distance between the wheels (you don’t want to catch your ankles), adjustability, so that the item fits you exactly. I’m at the stage where I use a mobility aid all the time, and I also suffer from chronic pain. Having something which is comfortable and does its job is vital to my happiness and wellbeing.
There is a HUGE price range on all of the equipment mentioned above. In some instances it is a case of ‘you get what you pay for’, but sometimes you can get basic equipment, which does the job well, and is much more affordable.
In the UK you can get VAT exemption when buying new mobility equipment if you have a long-term condition. You fill in a simple declaration form, and this makes a big difference to the price you pay. If you are buying an aid and the seller doesn’t offer this, then ask.
There is also a big second-hand market in disability aids, so it’s often worth looking on Ebay or similar sites to see what people are selling. Unfortunately often people are reluctant to send equipment (because it can be difficult to wrap), but you may be lucky enough to find what you want within driving distance. I have personally purchased a couple of items that way, mainly from people who have bought them and then found they needed something else. The items that I purchased were in excellent condition and saved a lot off the new price. I would be more cautious about buying anything with a motor second-hand though (such as a mobility scooter).
Every time I have purchased an aid, I have been disappointed in the range on offer. This is something that I will be taking around with me on a daily basis, and I don’t want something that looks awful!
But there are options out there that are a bit more stylish – if you look carefully. I have included some of my favourites in this article, to give you some ideas of what is on offer. In choosing my favourites I have looked at style, fit for purpose, comfort and affordability.
Do you use a mobility aid which you think is awesome? Why not share it with us below?
Designed for indoor use this is lightweight and designed to fit through internal doorways easily. It comes with a handy tray and a bag, so you can move your stuff around easily. It looks pretty nice too!
This is an all-terrain alternative to a rollator. It has a climbing wheel and pneumatic tires, as well as a comfortable handle, storage and a seat. It is designed to get you out and about, helping you to enjoy longer walks, off the beaten track.