9 Tips for Getting Around With a Wheelchair

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As a caregiver, you may spend a lot of time helping your loved one get from one place to another in a wheelchair—to doctors’ appointments, medical tests, adult day care, and family gatherings. Unlike younger or more independent people with disabilities, those at the end of life may be frail and unable to operate their own wheelchair. It’s often up to a caregiver to navigate it through public places, lift the chair in and out of a vehicle, and store it. Here’s what you need to know when it comes to wheelchair transportation:

Invest in the right equipment

If you’re going to be taking someone out on a regular basis, it’s probably worth purchasing a lightweight and foldable wheelchair that can be placed in the back of your car or a trunk, or that a transportation service can stow easily. A lighter transport chair has smaller back wheels compared to a standard wheelchair and can’t be propelled by the person sitting in it. Transport wheelchairs tend to be more useful for shorter periods of time. You can outfit a transport chair with footrests, arm rests and padded seating. Talk with a physical therapist about the best choice. (Related: How to Find the Right Wheelchair.)

Make sure your loved one always has a companion

You never want to leave a wheelchair-dependent person sitting alone. That means planning ahead, says Maria Torroella Carney, MD, chief of the Division of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine at Northwell Health, in New Hyde Park, New York. When you take them to a doctor’s office, for example, don’t just drop them off and go and park. Plan to bring an additional person along, or ask someone in the doctor’s office to come stay with them at the door while you go to park the car.

It’s especially important not to leave a person with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia sitting alone in their wheelchair somewhere unfamiliar. They could get up and wander and get lost or hurt.

Ask for a handicap parking pass

A handicap parking permit will enable you to park your car in designated spots in any parking lot, close to the doors of buildings and stores. The spots are also wider, giving plenty of space to unload a wheelchair and help you guide your loved one out of the car and into their chair. Ask your loved one’s physician for help getting a permit. “People often don’t know where and how to get it. That’s one thing a doctor can help a caregiver with,” says Carney. You can also visit DMV.org to get information on disability plates and placards in your state.

Meet with a geriatrician

Geriatricians are doctors who specialize in caring for the elderly. They can help you address a person’s function and provide advice on the best way to transport them in a wheelchair based on their physical and cognitive health. If you can’t find an appointment with a geriatrician, meet with a physical therapist who works with older patients. Also called a PT, they can help assess a person’s needs now and down the road if their health keeps declining.

Do advance research

If you’re going to be using public transportation often, research ahead of time if your bus or train or other transportation service offers ramps.

Many towns and cities will let you try a test run to get the lay of the land at, for example, a train station, before you actually need to use it. You can bring your loved one along, but try your dry run during non rush hour times, experts advise. Call your local department of transportation or the management office of the service you plan to use (train, plane, etc.) to make arrangements for your test run. The AARP suggests discussing accessibility needs at the time you make your reservation, too.

Learn about your local free ride options

Many municipalities and jurisdictions offer free ride services to older citizens and those who are wheelchair dependent, says Carney. These may be called paratransit or Dial-a-Ride programs. (Tip: call ahead to schedule a ride because many book up fast.) Nonprofits and charities may also offer free or low-cost rides for seniors and those with disabilities.

Depending on your area or the specific service you’re using, there may be some limitations when it comes to people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Also, you’ll need to qualify to access local free ride services, so you will need your doctor’s signature on the proper forms. 

To find these services, start with your loved one’s doctor, who can help you identify public and private transportation services in your area. A geriatrician or a doctor who cares for seniors may be more familiar with such resources. Your local hospitals or nursing care facilities can also be good resources for transportation recommendations. And your state’s department of transportation can also point you to options in your area.  

Another resource: Eldercare Locator, a free national service of the Administration on Aging that provides a directory of resources that enable older persons to live independently in their communities, as well as support for caregivers. The Eldercare Locator is administered by The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. They have a page dedicated to transportation. You can indicate your area and learn more about sources nearby.

You can also search online for local supplemental transportation programs (STPs). These are low-cost, community-based informal transportation services for seniors. Check that the service offers flexible availability, accessibility, if they’re courteous and clean, and if they can fit the special needs of the person who’ll be using the service. Don’t forget to inquire about price and vouchers for discounts. Visit AAA’s SeniorDriving.AAA.com for info on local programs.

Ask your care facility about their transportation services

Many nursing homes and similar facilities have their own in-house vans and drivers who are trained to transport elderly people who use wheelchairs. Just be sure to ask if these services are included in the usual monthly cost or if there is an extra charge.

Call a private medical transport service

There are many privately owned businesses that offer transport services for wheelchair-bound seniors and those with special medical needs. This is a good option for families who do not live near their loved one. You typically need to make a reservation in advance. They provide one-way and round trip services, long and short distances, and can also provide a wheelchair if your loved one’s chair is not easy to take along.

Private transport services have different pricing systems, typically charging a base transport fee and adding fees as the mileage goes up, for night transport, an immediate response call, and wheelchair or gurney transport. Fees vary by location. You can find private transportation companies by doing an online search for “wheelchair transport services” and your town’s name. Your local nursing facilities, hospitals, or your geriatrician/doctor can often provide names of services, too.

Advocate for your loved one

If you don’t have what you need for your loved one’s accessible and safe transportation, find out how to get it. For example, if you can’t find a free wheelchair transport service in your area for your family member with advanced Parkinson’s, you may be able to help establish a service in your area by talking with your loved one’s physician, care facility management team, or your town’s transportation department. You can also reach out to your local AARP or AAA chapter. The ADA supports you, as well. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including transportation.

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