How to Choose a Wheelchair for Elderly?

Whether it is from an accident, a disease, a genetic disorder, or age, not being able to walk or move our body parts impacts our physical well-being and psychological health. Individuals who suffer from any of this may start feeling dependent and depressed.

How to choose a wheelchair for elderly

Therefore, getting a feeling of independence becomes very critical for their well-being. This independence is what the right wheelchair gives these individuals. Let’s go a little deeper and understand various aspects of selecting the right wheelchair for your loved ones.

When I was a child, baby-strollers were not very prevalent. Very few rich people could afford them. As I grew up, I started seeing an increasing number of baby strollers. I used to think how great it is to sit in the stroller while somebody else is walking you around.

However, if I replace the word ‘baby-stroller’ with ‘wheelchair,’ the feeling is not the same. I am positive that nobody likes to sit in a wheelchair. Having a wheelchair is not a choice but a compulsion. Life is full of events, some we may like, others we can’t avoid.

Few of these life events leave us or our loved ones with temporary or permanent immobility. It can be an accident, a disease, or a genetic disorder – different events can impact our mobility in various phases of our lives.

While the impact of an accident, disease, or a genetic disorder on our lives is enormous, the probability of any of these events happening is relatively small. A large number of people are lucky not to get any of these. However, aging is something all of us go through. As we grow old, we are not as strong as we were back in the days. Our ability to move may deteriorate either naturally or because of an illness or injury in old age.

Whether it is a result of an accident, a disease, a genetic disorder, or age, not being able to walk or move our body impacts our physical well-being and psychological health. Anybody who suffers from any of this may start feeling dependent and depressed.

To those people, a wheelchair is a way to get some of their confidence back. It brings their independence back and gives them the ability to move around and interact with society. Therefore, the right wheelchair plays a critical role in our lives, even if they are for our loved ones.

Who may need a wheelchair? And who can recommend one?

Wheelchairs are of very different types and serve diverse purposes. A child with a genetic motor disorder may use a wheelchair, so is an older adult with limited mobility. Their needs will differ based on their age, diseases, and living conditions.

If you or anyone you care for could benefit from a wheelchair, you may ask your family physician, general practitioner, or a specialist like a physiotherapist for the initial assessment. After inspecting the condition and potential benefit, she can advise if a wheelchair will benefit the person. Accordingly, she can refer the individual for the wheelchair and suggest which wheelchair would be most suitable for the individual’s needs.

How to Choose a Wheelchair for Elderly

Types of wheelchairs

At the high-level, we can classify wheelchairs into four categories:

  • Manual wheelchairs
  • Battery-powered or motorized wheelchairs
  • Mobile scooters, and
  • Special-purpose wheelchairs.

Manual wheelchairs

While the name may suggest that these are the elementary versions of a wheelchair, they are also the most popular ones serving most individual needs. They are not only inexpensive and budget-friendly but also are very lightweight in most cases. In particular, if the individual who needs the wheelchair has access to a full-time caregiver or a relative at home, the lightweight of the wheelchair becomes its most significant selling point.

When an individual doesn’t have access to a caregiver or any relative, one can also propel this chair by holding the rear wheels and rolling them forward. Manual wheelchairs may also be several types, such as standard, lightweight, or transport wheelchairs. They have their advantages and drawbacks and serve different individual needs.

  • Standard wheelchairs weigh around 30-40 pounds or 15-20 kgs. It may cost as little as $100 and as much as $1000 depending on the steel frame’s quality and other features. They are suitable for in-house movements because their weight may feel heavy for many caregivers or helpers.
  • Lightweight wheelchairs are the most portable wheelchairs and are most popular among many elderlies. In particular, these are preferred by those who travel often. Moreover, one could easily lift these wheelchairs and keep into the car for road-travel because of their lightweight, sturdy frames.
  • Another kind of manual wheelchairs is a transport wheelchair. However, these are a little different from other manual chairs because, in these chairs, the rear wheels are too small. An individual sitting in the chair may find it challenging to reach them without an assistant.

Battery-powered  or motorized wheelchairs

Individuals who don’t have a fulltime dedicated caregiver should prefer motorized wheelchairs powered by a battery. On these wheelchairs, seniors do not require a continuous push to the wheelchair. It gives our elderly a sense of independence as they can move around on their own.

However, the independence of power chairs comes at a higher price and may impact patients’ motivation to walk around even if they could. Therefore, one must consider individuals’ living conditions and daily routines before considering purchasing a power chair.

Also, because these wheelchairs are battery-powered, one should consider how easy it is to replace or charge the batteries, if any, when required.

Nonetheless, these motorized wheelchairs may prove to be a great long-term solution for elderlies. These wheelchairs can be operated by the individual sitting in the chair with far less energy it would require to use a manual wheelchair.

How to Choose a Wheelchair for Elderly

Mobile scooters

While not wheelchairs by definition, mobile scooters are gaining massive popularity among many elderlies living alone with a caregiver. Powered by batteries, like a motorized wheelchair, mobile scooters also come with a wide seat, a handlebar for steering, a horn, lights, and space for storage.

Most of these scooters can be ridden either indoors, on a sidewalk, or a road. However, just like motorized wheelchairs, mobile scooters may also dissuade individuals from walking.

Special Purpose wheelchairs

Besides standard wheelchairs, nowadays, one may also get custom options serving special needs and individuals’ rare conditions.

A high-back wheelchair will fit the needs of a very tall individual. A reclining wheelchair helps one suffering from a compromised neurological condition and need support for their head, neck, and chest. Also, because of growing obesity among us, bariatric wheelchairs are among the popular types among special-purpose wheelchairs.

Criteria to choose

What type of wheelchair you should buy depends on several criteria including, but are not limited to, one’s age, body type, body posture, and upper-body strength. Let’s understand a few of these criteria which should play an important role in the selection of a wheelchair are:

Insurance and cost

In most countries with private insurance, this is one of the most significant factors in wheelchair selection. According to many physicians in the USA, their patients buy the best wheelchair available in their insurance coverage.

However, in Canada, provincial health insurance, through the Assistive Devices Program (ADP), covers partial or full costs of almost all types of wheelchairs and many of the accessories.

Fulltime caregiver or no caregiver available

The availability of a caregiver or a helper may also become a deciding factor. Without a dedicated full-time caregiver, having a manual wheelchair becomes near useless.

How much time an elderly would spend on the wheelchair and its usages patterns are another set of factors that you should consider before purchasing a wheelchair. If a person needs to be in the wheelchair for longer durations, she should prefer a sturdy wheelchair with a more robust steel frame over a lightweight option.

Individual’s Body Size

Weight, size, and body type are a few of many physiological factors contributing to the comfort one would have in a wheelchair. For example, a special-purpose bariatric wheelchair may best serve a heavy-weight individual with a large body frame as an illustration.

How to Choose a Wheelchair for Elderly

Health conditions & age

While selecting a wheelchair, we should also consider her disease and stage of ailment, and the person’s age.

We should consider the disease’s present stage and how it would progress as the person grows old. For example, one should also consider the future needs when buying a wheelchair for a person suffering from a health condition like neurodegenerative diseases that are likely to worsen with time.

Also, as a person ages, her upper-body strength takes a dip. In these cases, manual wheelchairs may not help when an individual doesn’t have access to a full-time caregiver.

Wheelchair dimensions

Besides the chair’s weight, you may have to consider other dimensions of the wheelchair in the context of the person’s comfort level. Seat width, seat depth, seat height from the floor, and space between arms are a few of these critical dimensions, significantly impacting the comfort of the person sitting in the chair.

Wheelchair features

Features serve as another set of criteria in wheelchair selection. Nowadays, wheelchairs come with many different factors such as a headrest, leg-rests, seat cushions, armrests, arm pads, cushioned backrest, safety belts, and snow or beach wheels. Depending on the individuals’ needs, one or more of these features may become critical in the wheelchair selection.


Being bed-ridden or unable to move may prove catastrophic for an individual’s physiological and psychological health. Therefore, getting a feeling of independence becomes very critical for the well-being of our elderly. This independence is what the right wheelchair gives to our seniors.

About Dr. Aishwarya Joshi

I am a trained medical professional by education. I have completed my bachelors in dental surgery (BDS) from D.Y. Patil University, Pune, India and I’m currently a graduate student at University of Central Florida, USA majoring in Health Service Administration (HSA). I am working on a research for medication assisted treatment for opioid drug abuse. I am interning as an issue analyst for United Nations Orlando Chapter. I have worked as a dentist for over 2 years and I have also interned as a health administrator in Fortis Hospital, India.