A wheelchair is one type of mobility aid an elderly parent or relative may choose to stay mobile. In this Guide we explain how to select the best wheelchair for an elderly person, the benefits of different types; features and accessories, and how to get a wheelchair.
It can be difficult to encourage someone that a wheelchair is a good option. They may feel that their independence will disappear waiting for someone else to push them, plus the prospect and the sight of being wheeled round may not seem very positive. These are delicate conversations and ultimately a very personal decision. But, for someone who is becoming increasingly housebound, a wheelchair might be their way safely out into the garden or to see friends and family.
Is a wheelchair the solution for an elderly parent?
To decide if a wheelchair is the right solution a first step is to ask a GP, physio or occupational therapist (OT) for a referral to a local wheelchair service for an assessment. They will advise if a wheelchair is an option, and if so, what types might be most suitable. There will be a number of considerations including posture and physical strength as well as weight and skin condition. They will also take into account possible future needs when selecting the best options.
Types of wheelchair
There are two main types of wheelchair: manual and powered/electric. Either type tend to be smaller than mobility scooters and are often more manoeuvrable and lighter, but if you want to find out more about scooters, read our guide.
There are two types of manual wheelchair: self-propelled – for those able to push themselves, and attendant-propelled wheelchairs – designed to be pushed by someone else.
A manual wheelchair would benefit someone who is still able to stand upright and walk, perhaps with a walking stick or frame, for a short amount of time or distance, but for whom longer distances are a challenge. Sufficient strength and movement in the arms are essential for a self-propelled wheelchair, although most models will also have handles for someone to push when needed.
Self-propelled wheelchairs have larger back wheels with outer ‘pushrims’ to propel and control the chair. These days you will be able to find models with quick-release wheels which make them less bulky and easier to put into a car for example.
Attendant-propelled wheelchairs have smaller back wheels, and are often lighter and easier to transport and stow away. Mounting kerbs, navigating doorways etc may be a bit of a challenge for the person pushing because of the smaller wheels, so it’s an idea for them to have a practice session as part of the selection process.
There are light, folding manual wheelchairs which may be a practical solution for example going out in the car shopping or for lunch, making them an achievable and easier task.
There are three categories of powered wheelchair – indoor, outdoor and a hybrid indoor/outdoor.
A powered wheelchair would benefit someone who is unable to use a self-propelled manual wheelchair, but wants to be independent of someone else to push them.
Indoor/portable; these are the smallest, often the lightest models, and usually the easiest to fit into the boot of a car; for indoors only – they are best for around the home/in the shops.
Outdoor wheelchairs will have larger wheels to manage different terrains, as well as suspension to make the ride more comfortable; these can usually be used indoors as well, but because they are larger they may not fit through doorways etc.
The hybrid indoor/outdoor wheelchairs are designed to offer the best of both worlds.
Powered wheelchairs are either Class 2 which means they can be used on pavements, or Class 3 which can also be used on roads. They are generally bulkier and heavier than manual wheelchairs because of the battery and motors.
Driving a powered wheelchair
A joystick on one of the armrests is the most common type of ‘drive control’ on an electric wheelchair. Simple in theory, it may be that the joystick is over or under-sensitive to control, but they can be adjusted to suit the individual. It may also be possible if needed to have a handlebar-style control retro-fitted to an existing chair.
Features to look for when buying a wheelchair
Wheelchairs are more easily customised for the user than for example mobility scooters. There are several features you can adjust, adapt or add.
Seats – the most important aspect of a wheelchair – it must be comfortable to sit in, and minimise any pressure issues or physical discomfort; they are often available in different lengths and widths. Additional ergonomic or sculpted support or cushioning can be added to give more support.
Footplates and armrests – most models come with adjustable footplates and armrests to ensure the most comfortable seated position for the user;
Headrest – usually an optional extra to give extra support to the neck and back.
Storage bags – Wheelchair bags can fit on various places on the wheelchair. You can purchase a backpack which fits on the handles at the back or a bag that fits on the arm. It is also possible to put some wheelchair bags under the seat. There are bags also specifically for electric wheelchairs.
Cushions – A wheelchair seat cushion is helpful in terms of comfort but also with a specific pressure cushion, for reducing the chances of developing pressure sores if someone is sitting for a long time. Using wheelchair pressure cushions can help evenly distribute the weight, reducing the likelihood of developing ulcers, and help take the pressure off the spine. Many cushions are also water-resistant and wipe-clean
Stick holders – there are a range of options available for walking stick holders – easy way to ensure a walking stick is never left behind.
Power packs: it’s possible to attach a power pack to most manual wheelchairs. This might be useful for someone with a self-propelled chair who may want to take some of the strain out of manually pushing from time to time.
Batteries – Powered wheelchairs need to be charged regularly. Most wheelchair batteries can take up to 10 hours to charge and doing so overnight will mean the wheelchair is ready for use during the day.
How do I get a wheelchair?
There are three main options:
1. The NHS
Most wheelchair users will have equipment supplied by the NHS which requires a mobility assessment first. Chairs from the NHS are loaned to the user, and the NHS is responsible for maintenance and repairs. Following an assessment and referral to NHS Wheelchair Services, there may be a waiting time of several weeks.
Rather than loaning a wheelchair directly, some NHS wheelchair services will give a non-taxable voucher that you can put towards the cost of purchasing a wheelchair.
2. Wheelchair Hire
Particularly useful for short-term options when a wheelchair is only needed temporarily – following an accident or perhaps more happily for going on a day out or holiday. The NHS is unlikely to be able to hire out wheelchairs short-term, but there are charities and other organisations that will be able to help.
The not-for-profit Motability Scheme allows people to hire a powered wheelchair for up to three years. To qualify the user must receive a government-funded disability allowance – those already in receipt of the Disability Living Allowance or the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) for more recent and current applicants. Anyone getting the enhanced-rate mobility component of the PIP can take part in the scheme, providing they have at least 12 months of the award remaining. It’s also open to people receiving the War Pensioners’ Mobility Supplement.
The Red Cross provides short-term loans of wheelchairs and is the main wheelchair-hire scheme. The service is run by volunteers so the Red Cross asks for a donation, and may also require a refundable deposit. Get in touch as early as you can, as there may be a waiting list at the local branch.
Organisations from zoos to gardens and National Trust properties have wheelchairs available to hire too. They’re usually light, manual wheelchairs adequate for a day out where there’s a lot of walking. You’ll need to phone ahead to reserve a wheelchair, as there’s often limited availability.
The local authority should be able to advise on the nearest equipment demonstration centre or Disabled Living Centre. Alternatively, search online for wheelchair providers/Disabled Living Centres in your area.
3. Buying a new or reconditioned wheelchair
Wheelchairs bought privately for someone who is chronically sick or disabled are VAT exempt. Help towards buying a wheelchair may also be possible from charities or the local authority.
Wheelchairs can be bought online, and whilst the price may be competitive, we would however really recommend “try before you buy” from a local mobility shop. They will be able to offer advice and an after care service.
Try out the specific type of wheelchair in the place it is going to be used – at home or on the pavement – to make sure it’s right for the person who will be using it.
Other considerations - home adaptations
An occupational therapist (OT) can advise on what adaptations might be necessary, and these may include:
- Adjusting doors and doorframes – this will depend on the size of the wheelchair – and the home;
- Ramps – into and around the house – which can be fixed or portable
- Lift – this may be an option but will require some significant alternations to the home.
- Downstairs bathroom/wetroom
FAQs on getting the best wheelchair
What are the two types of wheelchair?
There are two types of wheelchair: manual or attendant wheelchairs or powered/electric wheelchairs.
How can I get a free wheelchair?
The NHS provide wheelchairs on loan. If the wheelchair user receives a govt funded disability allowance they may be eligible for the Motability scheme which hires out wheelchairs in exchange for the allowance.
Which type of wheelchair is easiest to push?
A manual/attendant wheelchair is the easiest to push.
How long does it take to get a wheelchair on the NHS?
It may take several weeks to get a wheelchair on the NHS. First of all a mobility assessment must be done by the GP or occupational therapist.
How much does a wheelchair cost to buy?
A small, folding manual wheelchair starts around £500 to buy: a powered wheelchair may be in the region of £5,000 plus depending on a range of features.
How much does a wheelchair cost to rent?
Wheelchair hire per week starts from around £15 depending on the model. Day hire is also available from organisations such as The National Trust - perfect for a day out - but book early to avoid disappointment.
How long do wheelchair batteries last?
There are different batteries available and each will have a rating guide as to how long they will last - in the region of 10 hours. It is recommended that batteries are charged overnight.
How often do wheelchair batteries need re-charging?
It is recommended that batteries are charged overnight. They should last for at least a year before being replaced.
Where can I rent a wheelchair?
You can rent a wheelchair from suppliers such as Wheel Freedom or a local mobility shop. Charities such as The Red Cross also provide wheelchairs for hire.
If a wheelchair is not an option then you may wish to consider other aids such as a mobility scooter, rollater or frame. There are many options to choose from so don’t despair.