What can I do to encourage my elderly parent to use a walker or cane?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My dad is frail and has weak muscles but refuses to use anything to help him walk. I'm scared he's going to take a bad fall. Any ideas?

Expert Answer

Laura Cheney, a physical therapist who specializes in geriatrics, graduated with honors from the University of California at San Francisco in 2000. She loves her job working as the sole physical therapist at a premier life-care facility in San Francisco. She has written articles and lectured extensively on fall prevention and other issues relevant to the aging experience. As a registered yoga teacher, she teaches yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness techniques to seniors -- helping them expand their repertoire for coping with stress, pain, and illness in the later years.

I know how difficult this can be. Using an assistive device for walking often symbolizes regression in an elderly person's mind -- a visible sign of losing independence. It's important to listen to, acknowledge, and empathize with your father's concerns. But, there are several things you can do to encourage him to use a walking aid.

First, remind your father that a walking aid is a tool that allows him to maintain, if not increase, his mobility. Most people can walk further with less fatigue and more confidence with an aid. This increased mobility is good for his overall health while increasing his freedom.

Second, when talking to your father, compare using a walking aid with using a seat belt: It's simply the smart thing to do. You can throw in the startling statistics associated with falling -- which is much more likely to happen without a walking aid:

  • Among people 85 and over, one fall in every ten will result in a hip fracture.
  • Twenty-five percent of those who fracture a hip die within six months of the injury, and 50 percent of the elderly who have a fall-related injury will be discharged to a nursing home rather than return home.

Third, it may help for your father to hear the recommendation from a health professional. A physical therapist can do a balance assessment and give an objective measurement of his fall risk, then recommend the best walking aid. The therapist can also comment on how much better your father's posture and walking pattern look with the aid, affirming the need.

Finally, if your father is concerned about being seen with the standard aluminum walking aid, several types have a less institutional look. It's worth looking online (search using the word walker or the term walking aids) or going to a medical supply store to see what's out there. Your parent may also want to consider a rollator walker, which has four wheels and a seat and comes in a multitude of colors. They're sporty-looking, and the seat is handy for resting.

If you can encourage your parent to give a walking aid a try, chances are he'll realize how helpful it is and be hooked. Good luck.