Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Better Walkers are Sorely Needed by Millions of Boomers

Attention entrepreneurs. Start designing better walkers. Believe me, it will pay off.
Here’s why:
1. Today’s walkers -- choices, design, features -- are pretty lame. 
2. More people than ever are going to be needing them. The first of nearly 80 million baby boomers hit age 65 this year. It’s just a matter of time before an unprecedented number of aging folks will be needing mobility aids.
And that’s not all. An increasing number of war veterans are coming home disabled. Many of them will be needing canes, walkers or wheelchairs.
I know from first-hand experience how boomers can effect change.
Remember when strollers were just baby buggies? Then the boomers came along. Now you can get strollers in all colors, sizes, and shapes. They can accommodate twins, triplets, quadruplets and siblings. They hold babies’ drinks, toys and diaper bags. They come in a variety of price ranges with any number of features.
Laura Laughlin's Five Walkers
How I wish there was even a fraction of that variety when it comes to walkers. Since becoming disabled five years ago, I’ve accumulated five walkers and not one of them has all the features I would like.
I’ve got two of the standard issue “grandpa” variety, sturdy metal types with tennis balls on the back. One of them has an arm that doesn't fold so I can't take it anywhere. They are unwieldy, unattractive and don’t have brakes.
Another has a seat and brakes and takes up way too much space in stores or restaurants. I bring it when I’m going where I know I might need a seat, but it’s awkward to fold up and I can’t get it in or out of the car by myself.
My tri-wheeled walker has sturdy wheels that can handle dirt, asphalt and grass. I call it my all-terrain walker. It has a nice, deep pouch (I love it at the farmer’s market), OK brakes and it collapses inward, so it’s convenient to squeeze by in narrow restaurant or store aisles or too-small doorways. But it’s too heavy and bulky for me to lift in and out of my car. I can only take it when someone accompanies me on outings.
My other walker is a lightweight travel one that comes in three fashionable colors (hurray! -- that manufacturer is totally on the right track). It is easy for me to get in out of the car by myself and is supposed to fit in an overhead bin while flying. It folds inward to a narrow width so it’s a good squeezing-by walker.
But it’s not too stable and the wheels don’t turn. My big purse hanging on it almost makes me lose my balance. And turning left or right involves a noisy lifting up and plopping down movement.
It comes with stylish color-matched glides which are a welcome change from the tennis balls. But they occasionally fall off, usually when I’m out in public. The other day I had to ask the grocery checker to come around to my side of the counter to put my glide back on or I couldn’t have made it out to my car. Because I’m handicapped, I’m not capable of grabbing the glide off the floor, lifting up my walker and attaching it.
A lot of these walkers have features that mean well, but aren’t practical for a disabled person. To sit in my seated walker, you have to put on the brakes and turn around -- not an easy task when you can’t stand on your own. And it came with a bag stored beneath the seat to put your stuff in, but it’s impossible to get out if you have balance problems. I removed the bag from my walker because it was unusable.
I have lots of conversations with people about my walkers. Disabled folks -- or their caregivers -- don’t ask where I get my clothes or shoes, but they do inquire about my walker. Everyone seems to think mine is better than theirs. They are all in search of a better one. 
And while I am ever grateful that I am able to walk with assistance, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask that my mobility aids be functional and not hideous.
Even able-bodied folks notice our crappy walker choices. When I went to a lovely outdoor dinner party a while ago, I was feeling great. I was alive, after a lengthy battle with lymphoma. I was happy to see everyone and thanked them all for their support during my cancer struggles.
But someone asked my husband: Couldn’t he buy me a better walker? Apparently the metal grey “grandpa” one with the green tennis balls didn’t really complement my cocktail attire.
I consider myself ahead of the game when it comes to the frustrating experience of shopping for walkers, but I know there are millions behind me.


  1. This is a very interesting discussion, and I hope designers are listening. There is no reason walkers should be so crappy! I'm glad you're speaking up about this, Laura.

    Two questions: 1. What's a "glider?" 2. Will you write another post (linking to this one) that describes your ideal walker?

  2. Thanks Jill. A glide or glider is what attaches to the legs of a walker -- where the tennis balls usually go. It looks like a miniature ski.
    I will definitely be posting further on this topic.