How to choose a wheelchair for an elderly person

What’s the best wheelchair for an elderly person? There’s really no cut and dried answer for which is the best wheelchair for an elderly person, but there are steps you can take to make sure you get one that is most suitable for their individual needs. There are many different types of wheelchairs on the market and not all are suitable for an elderly person. There are also a lot of other influencing factors to take into account when choosing a chair to make sure you get the right one.

Keep in mind that, even if you think your elderly relative needs a wheelchair, or they specifically ask for one, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right solution for their mobility problem and it’s always a best to check with their GP or specialist healthcare professional beforehand. Having said that, a wheelchair can be beneficial if they’re feeling frail after an operation and need assistance to get from the house to the car to go shopping or attend a medical appointment. The right wheelchair can also be useful if you want to take your parent on a day out, but they no longer have the stamina to walk around for a few hours. But a wheelchair might not be the ideal indoor mobility aid if they have a house full of clutter or unadapted doorways that they, or you, will struggle to manoeuvre the wheelchair through safely.

Before you rush off to the nearest mobility aid centre to get your parent a wheelchair, you’ll need to take a few things into consideration. You’ll need to take into account where the chair will be used, the physical capabilities of the person who will be using it and of course, the cost. In this article you’ll find out about the various types of wheelchairs, what they’re recommended for, their average cost and whether or not you can get your relative a wheelchair for free from the NHS.

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Types of wheelchairs

While you might be under the impression that a wheelchair is a wheelchair, they’re not all the same. Here’s a basic breakdown of wheelchair types and what each kind is best used for.

Manual wheelchair – A manual wheelchair is as the name suggests, a wheelchair that’s operated manually, but that’s not where the description ends. There’s more than one type of manual wheelchair.

  • Lightweight folding wheelchair – This is the ideal chair for your relative if you want to be able to get it in and out of your car without causing yourself a back injury. They’re often not as sturdy as some chairs, but because they weigh less, pushing them around for any length of time tends to be less of a workout too.

The majority of models of this kind of chair have large back wheels so they can be manipulated by the occupant as well – if they still have the strength to do it. An additional bonus with this kind of chair is they’re readily available and economical to purchase. You can expect to pay anywhere from £100 to £250 for a lightweight folding wheelchair.

  • Transit wheelchair – This is a useful wheelchair if you need to move your relative from one room to another, on the same level, in the house. Transit wheelchairs, or transport chairs as they’re sometimes called, are not designed for sitting in for any length of time or to be pushed by the occupant. They are also not well-suited to outdoor use unless it’s a quick trip up and down the garden path to see how the flowers are doing.

Because this type of wheelchair tends to be smaller they will usually pass through doorways that aren’t adapted for wheelchair use. They’re often, but not always, foldable so easier to store when not in use. On average, a transit wheelchair will set you back between £85 to £200 depending on the model you choose.

  • Self-propelled wheelchair – Self-propelled wheelchairs are not really suitable for elderly people. These chairs are designed to be manoeuvred by the occupant. They have large back wheels and compared to the two previous types listed, can be a lot heavier structurally so not ideal for anyone with no upper body strength. They’re also quite bulky so not good for unadapted spaces.

Electric wheelchair – An electric wheelchair is a motorised wheelchair powered by a rechargeable battery. They are a bulky piece of equipment so if you’re considering one for your relative to use indoors then you may need to make adaptations to their home to be able to accommodate one.

Electric wheelchairs can be used outdoors as well as indoors and, unlike lightweight chairs, are designed to be comfortable for longer periods of time. To be able to operate this type of wheelchair, if you’re not with them and they don’t have a carer, your parent needs to be in control of their faculties or they could cause mayhem on the local pavements. They, or you, also need to ensure the battery pack is fully charged before setting out on adventures or it could run out of power when they’re a mile from home.

To be clear, an electric wheelchair is not the same as a mobility scooter. If your elderly parent is asking for one make sure they’re not really wanting a scooter. An electric wheelchair is a major investment and can cost anywhere from £700 to £2500 or more.

Consider your parent’s needs

One thing you need to think about when choosing a wheelchair for your elderly parent is whether they’ll need it for short or long-term use. If they’ve just undergone an operation or had a spell in hospital for whatever reason, the use of a wheelchair may have been recommended by an occupational therapist or other healthcare professional. It also may not have been.

It’s always a good idea to check, as discreetly as possible, with your parent’s healthcare providers whether using a wheelchair will really be beneficial for them. Your parent may just be feeling weaker than usual, which is understandable, and not too steady on their feet. Their occupational therapist on the other hand may require them to walk to build up their strength so having a wheelchair could be detrimental and impact their recovery.

Saying no to your parent having a wheelchair won’t be easy, but giving in might not be to their benefit either so check with the professionals first before saying yes. If your parent really does need a wheelchair after a stay in hospital, their occupational therapist will usually arrange for one to be borrowed, free of charge, on a short-term basis from the NHS.

Consider your parent’s comfort

Most wheelchairs can be customised with certain adjustments and varying accessories.

When trying out wheelchairs, make sure that the arm and footrests of your parent’s wheelchair can be adjusted to suit them. Lightweight chairs are not meant for sitting in for long periods of time. If your parent is going to be taking excursions in the wheelchair for several hours, consider getting some special wheelchair cushions that will support their back and make sitting more comfortable.

While you may not feel the cold too much on a brisk winter walk, the cold will feel bitter to an elderly person being pushed in a wheelchair. Make sure to invest in suitable attire and accessories for cold- and wet-weather outings that have been specifically designed for keeping wheelchair users warm – such as Wheelchair blankets, ponchos and hand warmers. Otherwise, they could end up chilled to the bone and suffering health problems.

Safety first

If you purchase a wheelchair for your parent then you or their caregiver will need to be prepared to carry out some regular basic maintenance to make sure it’s safe. Most wheelchair manufacturers provide a maintenance guide with their chairs, but you can expect to have to carry out some of the following at least once a month:

  • Check tyre pressure if the tyres are pneumatic and pump them up if the pressure is low.
  • Check all nuts and bolts to make sure none have worked loose. Tighten them if they have.
  • Check the wheel locks are operating correctly. If not, get them adjusted.
  • Wipe off any accumulated dirt and dust.
  • Check the arm, back and footrests are in the right position.

If you’ve hired the wheelchair for a short period or have it on loan it should have been pre-checked by the hire company or the NHS wheelchair service. It doesn’t hurt to give it a thorough once-over before you start wheeling your elderly parent around in it though just to be on the safe side.

Home adaptations

When your elderly parent will be using a wheelchair for a short period only, you obviously won’t want to start undertaking major home renovations. Wheelchairs come in a variety of widths so double check the one you’re getting will pass through existing doorways.

Another thing you will need to consider is how easy getting a wheelchair in and out of the front or back door is going to be. If the answer is awkward then think about getting a threshold ramp to make it easier.

Threshold ramps are a lot more economical than getting a builder in and can be removed when they’re not needed. They’re available in a variety of sizes and cost from £10 to £100 depending on the model. As they’re removable, you can also use the same ramp inside the house if it’s needed.

There’s no denying that when they’re used inside the home that wheelchairs, no matter what type, take up a lot of space so be prepared to move furniture and clear away any obstructive clutter.

If your elderly parent is going to be using a wheelchair inside their home on a long-term basis, and they want to stay self-sufficient, then you may need to make serious adaptations like lowering the kitchen sink and widening doorways. This will be costly and it’s unlikely that this type of adaptation will be funded by your local council.

NHS, buy or hire

As well as providing a wheelchair for a short period after hospitalisation, the NHS also has a wheelchair service. To be eligible for a wheelchair from the NHS your parent will need to undergo an assessment by the service. Wheelchairs are only provided for those who really need them and going through the process can take several weeks.

The Red Cross run a wheelchair hire service throughout the UK. The minimum hire time is one week which carries a cost of £22. They will deliver a wheelchair to any location in the UK for an additional cost of £25. They also include a three-monthly maintenance inspection and cleaning service free of charge.

There are many places around the UK such as garden centres, shopping centres and National Trust locations for example that provide wheelchairs free of charge on their premises. If you’re planning a day out, check the location’s website and you’ll be able to reserve a chair online or by calling the phone number on their webpage.

If finances are tight, but you want to buy a wheelchair, your parent may be able to get help funding the purchase through the Motability Scheme or your local Integrated Care Board.

In summary

If they’ve been hospitalised, and the NHS hasn’t provided them with a chair when they’ve been discharged, you should always check with their care providers to see if getting a wheelchair is the right thing to do. Keep in mind though that even if it’s not used every day, having a wheelchair on hand means your elderly relative (and you) will be able to enjoy longer outings and excursions they might not otherwise be able to manage, without getting over tired. That can only be a good thing – improving not just their quality of life but yours too.

Common questions

  • What type of wheelchair is best for the elderly?

The best type of wheelchair for an elderly person is generally a lightweight manual chair that can be transported and stored easily.

  • Can you get a free wheelchair on the NHS?

You may be able to get a free wheelchair on the NHS if you meet the criteria set out by the NHS wheelchair service in your area.

  • What is the average cost of a wheelchair?

A wheelchair can cost anywhere from as little as £100 for a basic manual model up to £2,500 for an electric wheelchair.


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