|James H. Rimmer, Ph.D., Director
I received a phone call the other day from my 86-year-old mother, who lives in a small apartment in Queens, New York. Her knees have been failing her for years and she is now at that proverbial 'fork in the road' where she has to decide between having surgery and using a scooter or wheelchair to get around her environment. She is a poor candidate for surgery because her motivation to rehabilitate herself, which requires a great deal of commitment and determination, is low. Transitioning from a cane to a wheelchair is the most logical thing to do, but living most of her life in a pre-ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) era where disability was considered an embarrassment has prevented her from making the transition to using an assistive device. The generation in which my mother spent most of her adult years perceives a wheelchair as a negative thing rather than as a tool for maintaining freedom and independence. The biggest barrier that many older adults like my mother experience in their later years is one of perception; that disability
is something to hide or not think about rather than transition into gracefully, no different from other transitions that we will all have to make in different stages of our life. There is nothing wrong with transitioning from a cane to a scooter or wheelchair; in fact, it is the most logical thing to do. With that newly discovered freedom comes reduced pain, fewer feelings of anxiety (i.e., How I am going to care for myself?
), and increased independence and life satisfaction. Provided that my mother continues to obtain a regular amount of physical activity using her upper body to perform chair exercise videos, weights, or something available in a health club or senior center such as a recumbent stepper or arm ergometer, she'll be fine. She will also need to do some lower-extremity exercises to maintain her strength and balance, and should continue walking for very brief periods within her pain tolerance (i.e., retrieve the mail, walk over to a neighbor's apartment, etc.). This will allow her to maintain enough physical independence to dress, bathe, and perform various types of transfers.
Using a scooter to get around her neighborhood will breathe new life into my mom. Social isolation will be replaced with being around people (even being in the company of strangers is often better than being isolated in a small apartment). It will enable her to form new friendships, travel to stores she hasn't frequented in years, see old friends across town, and enjoy all of the aspects of life that she remembers enjoying in her earlier years. There is even the reality that she will be able to fulfill her dream vacation : a cruise around the Caribbean. No longer will she have to feel that she is a burden on others.
Over the next 10 to 20 years, there will be a dramatic increase in the number of seniors over the age of 80. Retired baby boomers will be caring for aging parents with physical, cognitive, and sensory disabilities. Together, this group will become a voting force that will shift the interest of policymakers from a barrier-ridden society to a barrier-free one. We will start to see the disappearance of stairs and the appearance of many more automatic doors, accessible transportation, and grocery stores and gyms that have easily accessible food products and exercise equipment. People with disabilities, including my mother, will, in the near future, become part of a richer and more colorful societal fabric that embraces human difference and advocates for the removal of all barriers in the built environment.