Age is no longer a hurdle for elderly Americans. According to a recent study, Americans age 65 years and older are using mobility devices such as canes, seat lift chairs, walkers, scooters, wheelchair lifts and other instruments more than ever for moving. Moreover, the study found that many are using more than one device, depending on the setting.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (May 6, 2015 issue), included data collected from National Health and Aging Trends (NHAT) surveys conducted in 2011 and 2012. These data were compared with earlier surveys. The 2011-2012 data included a nationally representative sample of 7,609 community dwelling Medicare beneficiaries.

As part of the study, researchers evaluated the usage pattern of mobility aids and how long these participants used each device. In addition, participants were evaluated by asking a series of questions whether they had fallen in the past year, if they have fallen more than once during the past year, whether they had worried about falling and whether this limited their activities.

  • It was found that about 1 in 4 adults above 65 years (24%) used some kind of mobility device (reporting a 50% increase since 2004). Out of these 9.3% reported more than 1 device
  • A cane was the most commonly used device (at 16.4% of the total population) and the least commonly used device was a scooter (2.3%)

Several possible reasons such as greater disability rates, higher longevity, wider acceptance for the use of devices, and correction for unmet needs in previous decades could account for this steep increase in use of mobility devices.

According to the researchers, understanding the determinants of greater use will provide insight into the training needs of older adults (that is, whether current mobility device training standards are sufficient for safety).

Analysis of use data (which relates to self reported falls) revealed that participants with the highest incidence of falls were among those with a history of using mobility device and a history of falls. Further, no difference in falls incidence or recurrence of falls was found between the device and the non-device groups (after adjusting for demographics, medical conditions, physical capacity, cognitive function and fall history).

Though mobility device usage did not appear to lower the incidence of falling, this is not fully unexpected, given that accessibility devices use is significantly associated with many of the risk factors for falls.

The study’s findings have significant implications for practitioners, particularly those who prescribe and train older adults in the use of mobility equipment. It is pointed out that training and safety assessment for using more than one device is necessary, along with dedicated follow-up to detect physical changes requiring additional devices or discontinuation of devices that are no longer required for safety.