The Impact and Effectiveness of Power Wheelchairs and Scooters

We are starting to see more and more older adults out and about in the community in power wheelchairs or scooters. It’s not so uncommon to see someone motoring down the grocery store aisle or attending a sporting event in one of these power mobility devices (PMDs).

You might wonder — how did disabled adults get around before these units were available? Good question and most likely the answer is that they were shut-ins (unable to leave home). You might wonder — is an expensive, motorized wheelchair really necessary? Whatever happened to the old-fashioned manual wheelchairs?

Most of the wheelchair users in this country are 65 years old or older. They are in a mobility device because they have a disabling condition. It’s often the case that they live alone or with someone who can’t push a self-propelled chair. And the disabled adult may be able to push the wheels forward with their arms and hands a bit but not enough to go everywhere.

Given that background, it’s time to take a closer look at how these power mobility devices (PMDs) impact peoples’ lives. Just how effective are they? Do the benefits outweigh the cost? How long does it take before older adults get the hang of using it? And does that learning curve translate into functional mobility?

These are some of the questions addressed by this study. Adults between the ages of 50 and 89 years of age who use some type of powered mobility device (PMD) were included in the study. The goal was to see how stage of PMD affected what they called life-space mobility (getting around). The researchers divided patients up into two groups based on stage of usage.

One group consisted of people who had been using their first PMD for less than six months. This group was called the initial users group. The second group (the long-term users) had been using their PMDs for more than six months. As a little peek into their results, we will tell you that by the end of the study they had identified a third group: expert users (stage beyond the first year).

The data was collected over the phone in interviews with all the participants. Questions were asked to determine each person’s usage of their wheel chair or scooter. Use was measured inside the home, outside just around the house, in the neighborhood, in town, and outside of town. Information was gathered about how much time the mobility device was used and how much help the person needed from someone else.

While analyzing the data, factors that might affect power mobility device usage were also examined. These variables included things like sex (male or female), diagnosis, walking ability, type of device used, training to use the device, living status (alone, partner, assisted living), and overall activity level.

The group was made up of 60 per cent women, 40 per cent men. Most were power chair users (52 per cent) with 48 per cent scooter users. Half the group had some kind of neurologic problem such as a stroke, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, or brain injury. They could walk indoors (independently or with a walker or cane) and get in and out of their wheelchair or scooter without help.

They found that men were more likely to travel distances farther away from home in their powered mobility device compared with women. Men and women who used scooters were able to go farther more often than those in a wheelchair.

Participants who had a trial usage at home before purchasing the device made greater use of it compared with those who did not have a trial run. And it was observed that those individuals who still drove their own car were able to experience a greater and wider Life-space (i.e., they went more places more often).

In summary, power mobility devices (whether a powered wheelchair or scooter) give older adults the ability to get out more in their own neighborhood. Having a powered mobility device didn’t mean the user would increase the distance to his or her outings — just the frequency (how often) they got out. People who had specific reasons for wanting a powered mobility device called participation objectives (e.g., go shopping, eat out, take the dog out) did increase their Life-space mobility.

The authors recommend training for anyone considering a power mobility device. Training specifically geared for women is advised. A trial use of any device but especially the scooters is recommended for everyone of either sex and of any age. When considering the prescription and purchase of these devices, participation objectives are a good idea and helpful to create first.