Mobility Aids and MS: Power Wheelchairs

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You need a wheelchair, but much more than a manual chair. What are the options? Last week I covered scooters. Today I will talk about the power of power chairs. Do your online research, talk with your physical or occupational therapist and visit a store representative. They may all have suggestions and recommendation, but only you know what you want and need. My online friend, Diane J. Standiford, stayed with the Jazzy based on her gut feeling and strengthened by her experience. "The first one I got has lasted for 5 years, and it always gets compliments from strangers. It seemed a product that had passed the test of time and parts can be replaced, changed; the chairs are flexible to change just like MS makes me have to be."

I know what she means, because I replaced my first Amigo with another Amigo. I knew the chair, I knew the people, and now I have been a satisfied customer for 16 years. But this is MS, and situations change. Even though the scooter is trendy and popular, there are times the power wheelchair is the better choice. Motorized versions of the wheelchair, called electric wheelchairs, were in limited use early in the 1900s. Motivated by the many disabled WWII veterans, the electric wheelchair was modernized and became available commercially to the middle class by the 1950s. With minor improvements and continuing innovations, we arrive at today, when any wheelchair powered by electricity is a bona fide power chair.

One cannot know by looking how wonderful some of these chairs actually are for the person sitting in them. Society marvels at some. For example, the iBot was the talk of the world, and not just the disabled community. It allows standing upright with a strong and sturdy balance as well as climbing stairs. But alas, it wasn't enough, and with the price tag reaching $25K, production was halted. Hopefully, power chair innovation was not halted with it. When is a power chair the best choice? When selecting a power chair, talk to salespeople because they know what products are available, at least those available at their store or company. Talk to a physical and/or occupational therapist because they know the products as well as your needs. Keep in mind that MS may change, sometimes drastically, and getting a chair before you are too disabled to move without it is a good idea as well as a safe idea.

Many health professionals recommend a power chair from the beginning to avert a future problem in case of a setback. We all know how quickly MS can change, and the fact is Medicare does not pay for more than one chair of any kind in a five-year period. Be aware that a power chair is more expensive, sometimes very much so. My online friend Michael G. Berger, who owns a power chair, says the cost is "a sin." Insurance coverage is time-consuming and difficult to obtain, involving doctors, therapists, consultations, second opinions and re-evaluations. Beware inexpensive power chairs found online (Craig's list, ebay), because they may not fit your particular needs or measurements. Chairs are usually better for the person who needs assistance getting in and out. For example, a power chair is preferred when legs and feet have no movement, or there are problems moving an arm or arms. Posture problems are a good indicator for power chairs. Various seating adjustments are available as well as posture supports. These chairs are a good bet for MSers who have lost trunk strength. The seating options are helpful when pressure sores begin to be a problem. A tilt feature allows weight to be redistributed, aiding in comfort and relieving pressure. Leg lift and foot rest features help with both posture and weight redistribution, but they especially contribute to better blood circulation when used with the tilt function.

Although I can get around pretty easily in my scooter, a power chair is more maneuverable, especially in small spaces. The controller is usually a joystick so numbness in hands may be less aggravated. Many people use a power chair inside the house and a scooter outside. Most power chairs do not break down to fit into the trunk of a car like scooters, and they are too heavy for lifts fitted on the back of a car. However, power chairs are excellent when transported in a van because of the four-point tie down.

They are easier in public transportation and are useful on more terrains with the variety of wheels available. Special care is recommended in thick grass, snow, and ice. There are many companies offering a large assortment of power chairs. Michael B. Gerber has chosen not to buy a chair off the shelf, but to design it for himself. Michael tells us about his chair, why he chose it, and why he likes it:

"The chair is made by Ti and is made of Titanium, making it one of the lightest chairs available, about 16 pounds without wheels. Separately we purchased the motorized wheels, made by Alpers, a German company. This "add-on" includes two wheels, a battery that goes under the seat, a joy stick for steering and adjusting the speed and a charger for the battery. The wheels weigh about 18 pounds each. Add a few pounds for the battery and it is still a very light weight system.

"We bought this chair for several reasons. Mostly because it would be easier for me than pushing a chair and easier for Gail because it is easier and lighter to shlep "One great advantage to the motorized chair is that we can now walk side by side, even hold hands if we want to. This is not a little thing. Being pushed means having someone stand behind you and that often means not being heard when talking. To me, that is a big difference."

Selecting between a scooter and a power chair is a choice that makes a big difference in our physical needs and quality of life. The right wheelchair makes a big difference in comfort and mobility.

Notes and Links:

Michael's blog

Comparison of scooters and power chairs