If you’ve never shopped for them before, you might be surprised to learn just how many different types of wheelchairs there are. In addition to the manual and power wheelchairs most people are familiar with for mobility needs, many types of specialty chairs are also available that can assist with caregiver duties.
For basic getting around, manual wheelchairs come in several categories:
- Dynamic tilt
Keep in mind that not all manual wheelchairs have brakes and handles, and some chairs are also reclining regardless of style. Standard manual chairs are best designed for wheelchair users who like to get around on their own as much as possible. They have large rear wheels that can be adjusted (along with the seat height and footrests) to put the user in the optimum position for self-propulsion and ergonomics.
Dynamic tilt wheelchairs are made for people who cannot self-propel and rely on their chairs for all ambulation, as well as to maintain a safe and comfortable seating position. These chairs are adjustable and help keep users upright, making them great for personal care and meal times. The most important feature is the “tilt in space” function, which relieves pressure in order to prevent sores.
Some manual chairs are also designed to be lightweight. Transport wheelchairs can look a lot like the standard ones, though they often have smaller wheels on the back that are not conducive to maneuvering tight spaces indoors or for long-term ongoing use. These ultra lightweight wheelchairs are great for your loved one who can still get around their own home but can’t go distances outside.
“If you’re only going to use it for transport to doctors’ appointments and other community outings – and someone is always going to be available to help – then you might consider a lightweight transport chair so that it’s easy to put in the car and take with you,” said Brandy Archie, OTD, an occupational therapist and founding director of AccessAble Living.
A folding wheelchair is lighter and more adjustable than the standard—though a bit of a misnomer because most manual wheelchairs also fold. The additional adjustments available to its rear wheels mean it can better fit the wheelchair user’s center of gravity, giving them a more stable ride in this mobility device.
A rigid wheelchair may or may not fold, but its lightweight frame makes it an option for seniors who want to self-propel but don’t have as much upper body strength.
Travel power wheelchairs and folding power wheelchairs are both options for seniors who need a motorized wheelchair that’s also lightweight enough to transport by car. While the folding version can easily be compacted to fit in a passenger vehicle, you need to disassemble the travel chair.
Manual wheelchairs are a great option for many people, especially younger adults who are able to self-propel and want to maintain their independence. Still, Archie said, seniors shouldn’t feel as though they have to exhaust themselves to get around.
“If pushing will be too challenging but they want to be independent, consider a power wheelchair that can be driven with a joystick,” she said.
Electric wheelchairs come in a variety of types and sizes, including:
- Travel power wheelchairs (see above)
- Foldable power wheelchairs (see above)
- Full-size power wheelchairs
- Heavy-duty power wheelchairs
Archie described the different aspects that should be weighed when selecting a wheelchair:
“This is a big consideration because the type of device you need is based on where and how it’s going to be used,” she said. “If it’s for checking the mail in the apartment building and getting to activities, a power scooter could be best because it has a basket for holding items and is great for distances because it does not have to be manually pushed. If it’s for getting around in the community – like at the doctor’s office or the grocery store – then consider a portable power wheelchair or scooter that can come apart into pieces and be put in the trunk.”
Power wheelchairs can even give some independence back to seniors who have suffered spinal cord injuries or have other limitations that prevent them from using a joystick. Options for alternative controls include spoken commands, pneumatics (where the user sips or puffs air into a straw to control the chair), customizable switch arrays that rely on fiber optics, as well as controls manipulated by the head, tongue or chin.
Different types of wheelchairs
Did you know wheelchairs are not just for mobility? A variety of specialty chairs can assist with caregiving and activities of daily living, and also improve quality of life:
- Shower chairs are lightweight wheelchairs meant to fit in small spaces, including roll-in showers. Some also have commode attachments.
- Commode wheelchairs are made specifically for toileting activities, with a cutout in the center for elimination. Some roll directly over the regular toilet but a basin is also attached.
- Geri chairs look like recliners on wheels and may be a good option for bedridden seniors who need a change of pace throughout their day.
- All-terrain power chairs put your adventurous senior back in the action.
- Beach wheelchairs allow seniors with mobility issues to get back in the sand.
- Standing wheelchairs support wheelchair users in a standing position to relieve pressure, maintain muscle tone and allow for different activities.
- Stair-climbing wheelchairs are equipped to ascend stairs where ramps are unavailable.
- Bariatric wheelchairs come in manual or power versions. They have wider seats for greater comfort and are reinforced with additional metal for higher weight capacity.
- Narrow wheelchairs with a tighter turning radius may work best for those in homes with lots of tight spaces and small doorways.
- Rollator walkers are great for seniors who may be making the transition to a wheelchair but want to keep walking on their own as much as possible.
The best wheelchair and wheelchair accessories
Ultimately the best type of chair is the one that meets the needs of both the senior using it and their caregiver. For some that might mean a standard wheelchair, while for others it’s a motorized, heavy-duty wheelchair with all the ergonomic bells and whistles like upholstery, a head rest and leg rests. Some seniors with limited mobility may not be able to meet all their needs with a single chair and may require a combination of chairs for personal care in addition to general mobility.
The following accessories will help make any chair even more useful:
This organizer pouch comes with a cup holder, reflective strip and multiple pouches to store a phone, eyeglasses and more.
This waterproof bag is a colorful way for seniors to pack their necessities along.
Perfect for eating, reading, writing and more, this tray has a sleek modern design, a cup holder and a slot to hold an e-reader, tablet or phone.
A soft surface may be helpful for aging skin, making this soft-top tray ideal for mealtime.
This standard seat cushion may help reduce lower back, sciatica and tailbone stress.
Specifically made for wheelchairs, this thick cushion offers comfort and support.
Once a wheelchair is involved, two-story houses can be an added challenge for seniors who want to stay in their homes. This lift helps solve that problem.