Shallow Thoughts

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 31 Mar 2008

Wheelchair antics

My mother is temporarily in a wheelchair due to a broken ankle, so we've been helping out and learning all about wheelchairs.

I've actually been fascinated by wheelchairs for years. I'm not sure why; maybe it was seeing some of the interesting off-road racing wheelchairs built by bike companies like Cannondale, and the amazing feats of various sorts of wheelchair athletes. But it's been fun and interesting getting some firsthand experience. And, I have to say, Mom looks pretty cool in her slick little wheelchair and black high-tech looking ankle boot.

I already knew about some of the inconveniences that go along with not walking, like all the stuff on the high shelves in stores (fortunately Mom can stand up on her one good leg), and how much more complicated baths and showers become. Not much we can do to help there.

The first big issue where we can help is getting in and out of the house. The front porch is out -- it's three steps down, so no chance of managing it in a wheelchair. The garage is the same way. But the door to the back patio is a lot more promising: only one relatively small step down. Getting out is easy as long as you're prepared for the lurch as the chair goes over the edge. Getting back up with no ramp is the trick.

But we found several ways of handling it. My first tries involved getting a running start and trying to wheelie up -- that works for the front wheels, but the rear wheels don't have enough traction to get over the lip. Dave had an idea worked better: lean forward and grab the doorway with your hands and just pull yourself up. (This is really easy if you can cheat and use one foot; without that, it does take a bit of arm strength.)

Mom found her own way, though: stand up on the good foot, reach down and lift the chair up over the edge then sit back down.

We've learned a few other things:

Handicapped parking spots are almost always full. I'm amazed at how often we've seen this. It's not cheaters -- when I've bothered to check, the other cars always the correct placard. Apparently there are just a lot more people with handicapped placards than there are spaces to park in.

Related: A lot of places don't have sidewalk ramps, so you may have to go way out of your way if you need a ramp.

On the positive side, people are pretty accomodating. One of my mom's friends told her "The seas part for you when you're in a wheelchair". We haven't quite seen that, but when people happen to notice the chair, they do try to make way. The biggest problems have been in places like Fry's, full of nerds so intent on their shopping that they have no idea what's around them.

Good thing people are accomodating, because Wheelchairing is hard work: harder than you think it will be, at least on rough surfaces like carpeting or grass. Good way to build up those shoulder muscles! Especially uphill (though going backwards makes the really steep ascents a lot easier).

Perhaps that explains why, when I've visited elderly relatives in nursing homes, I've noticed that although many of the residents are in wheelchairs, none of them use their hands to wheel around. Instead, they push themselves slowly along by shuffling with their feet, looking like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

And speaking of nursing homes, another minor mystery. They initially sent Mom home with a walker (like the walking denizens of the nursing home use) instead of crutches. I'm curious why. I've tried crutches a few times, and remember them as being fairly easy to use. The walker seems much more difficult. You have to limit yourself to slow baby steps, or else you tend to bump into the front of the walker with your legs as you swing through. It's harder, too: your hands get sore from holding so much weight on your palms. I can see how it would be a good balance aid for someone who moves very slowly anyway. But Mom isn't like that -- she gets around just fine when she has two good legs. I hope she won't be stuck using the walker for long once she starts walking again.

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