A Guide to Canes and Walker Selection and Use

For older adults, the ability to safely travel within their community is a key element of maintaining long-term independence, allowing individuals to consistently and safely attend medical appointments, run errands, and stay socially engaged.

While New York City is home to numerous transportation options that cater to individuals using wheelchairs, those with less significant mobility impairments due to injury, weakness, or pain may find an assistive device like a cane or walker invaluable in their travels. Man walking with walker

Although an individual can simply walk into a medical supply store or pharmacy and purchase an assistive device, many elder care specialists recommend against this practice, as it is easy to purchase a device that does not fit the user, might not solve the gait or balance issue it was meant to resolve, or even increase an individual’s risk of injury.

The following information is meant to provide readers with a brief overview of assistive devices, however, individuals should always consult with their primary care physician before purchasing or using an assistive mobility device.

Cane Basics

Canes are typically recommended for individuals with mild balance problems or limited mobility due to pain or weakness in one leg, hip, or foot. Canes are designed to support a maximum of 25% of a user’s weight and come with a variety of handle types and additional features based on how they will be used, including built-in seats or multiple points in order to provide better stability.

While canes do not provide as much stability as a walker, they are typically less cumbersome to use practically, as they can easily be hooked onto a user’s wrist or a nearby doorknob to free up the user’s hands. Finally, unlike walkers, canes can be used to make ascending and descending stairs significantly easier when used properly.

Walker Basics

Walkers are typically recommended for individuals with moderate to poor balance due to pain or weakness in legs, feet, or hips. Walkers can support up to 50% of a user’s weight and can be built with static contact points, rolling wheels, or a combination of both. Wheeled walkers with hand brakes are referred to as rollators and require slightly more coordination and maintenance to use safely long-term.

Because of their added size and weight, some people find walkers to be a bit less convenient when moving through tighter spaces, however their ability to stand upright on their four contact points and the ability to add luggage and/or seat cushions to some designs allows for quite a bit of versatility when completing errands.

Unlike canes, walkers are not meant for use on stairs, as their footprint is typically larger than the surface area of an individual step.

Fitting an Assistive Device

The best way to ensure you choose the best possible assistive device and that it is properly adjusted to your height is by working with a physician or occupational therapist who can perform a gait and balance assessment to determine your current needs. When fitting a new assistive device, be sure to follow these guidelines:

  • Be sure to wear your everyday shoes
  • Stand in your normal posture
  • Allow your hands to hang at your sides
  • You will then have a measurement taken from your hand’s resting position to the floor
  • This measurement will then be used when sizing your assistive device, with the goal that the handle of your cane or walker will stop at a comfortable position for your hands and will not force you to alter your gait or posture.
  • If properly fitted, your elbow should rest at a 20 to 30-degree angle while holding your cane or walker. When looked at in profile, your upper arm should be in the 12 o’clock position and your forearm should point to the 5 o’clock position.

Upkeep for Assistive Devices

Just like any other tool, assistive devices require periodic maintenance to ensure your safety. The most common repair will involve replacing the non-slip rubber tips at the bottom of your device or replacing the foam grips that prevent undue pressure on your hands.

For more complicated devices, like rollators or canes with built-in seats, you may need the assistance of a repair person to ensure all safety features remain functional.

Using a Cane

While you may receive specific instructions based on your individual condition, the most common steps for using a cane are as follows:

1 – Hold your cane on your body’s stronger side.

2 – Put all of your weight on your stronger leg.

3 – Move your cane and your weaker leg forward a comfortable distance.

4 – While balancing your weight on your weaker leg and cane, swing your good leg forward.

5 – Be sure that your cane or feet are securely beneath you before proceeding from one step of the process to the next. Overextending your stride is one of the most common causes for falls when uses a cane.

Using a Walker

Safely using a walker requires taking slightly smaller steps than your traditional walking gait. The most common instructions for safely using a walker are as follows:

1 – Begin with the toes of both feet about halfway between the front and rear contact points of your walker.

2 – Lift or roll the walker about one step’s length forward, taking care not to overextend by trying to cover too much distance in one move.

3 – With the walker securely flat on the ground and your weight partially supported by the walker, lean forward.

4 – Take a step, aiming to land your toes in the same position they were in during step 1.

5 – Repeat this process, focusing on maintaining a consistent stride length and ensuring all four contact points of the walker are touching the ground.

Maintaining the ability to travel within your community is a critical element of maintaining long-term independence as you age. In addition to in-home care and supervision, SelectCare caregivers can also provide clients with assistance during travel, allowing you to stay connected to whatever matters most to you.

To learn more about SelectCare and how we have helped New Yorkers live happier, healthier lives for nearly 40 years, call SelectCare today, request a free in-home care guide, or read some of our client testimonials and reviews.