I bought an adjustable Leki trekking pole 30 years ago while recovering from arthroscopic surgery for a torn meniscus. Two decades later, I used it in conjunction with bilateral knee replacements. Three years ago, it provided stability before and after back surgery for spinal stenosis and emerging foot drop. Sometime during my last recovery, I left my Leki pole somewhere, and replaced it with a new model that includes a suspension mechanism for flexibility and comfort. I now use it whenever I take a leisurely walk, climb stairs that lack railings, traverse slippery or uneven ground, and navigate airports. I seldom leave home without it.
When it’s with me, someone invariably comments how s/he should use one, too, but doesn’t. Friends with hearing aids or other devices have told me that they often hear the same thing. I don’t get it.
Why would someone risk falling or endure muffled conversations or other inconveniences rather than use an adaptive device that provides stability, supports activity, and promotes independence?
Some people equate adaptive gear with awkwardness or frailty. They remember clunky canes and walkers, rickety wheelchairs, ill-fitting clothing, thick glasses, cumbersome hearing aids, and lots of snoring. Or, they visualize old people at nursing homes, slumped over walkers, drooling, over-medicated, neglected, disoriented, and pitiable. A hearing aid? A cane? For me? You’ve got to be kidding.
Then there are those who remember their earlier lives as jocks, exercise freaks, soccer moms, hockey dads, or sports stand-outs. They’re still patching roofs with decrepit bodies while declaring to worried children that they’re as healthy as horses and getting by just fine. No gear for them either.
Many folks know that they should use an adaptive device, but they don’t. Perhaps they worry about being a burden or standing out in a crowd. Maybe they fear that image-conscious friends will drop them, or that some other equally yucky thing will occur. They are certain that everyone will ask what’s wrong, and then they’ll have to hear silly advice, endure terrible stories of other people’s misfortunes, or fend off compassionate souls who want to help. Those folks inevitably figure that it’s better to leave well enough alone and hope for the best rather than face the discomfort of scrutiny, embarrassment, and concern.
It’s all so darned exasperating…. and unnecessarily short-sighted, as it turns out.
Then and Now
When I was a graduate student, I took a class in rehabilitation psychology that opened my eyes to life. I learned that I was a “TAB,” a temporarily able-bodied person, and I was admonished to understand that any of us could become handicapped at any moment.
A mogul ski crash. A bad dive. A car accident. An unseen step. A wobbly ladder. An unsafe roof. A missed signal. Simply being in the wrong place. Anything can produce a handicap, and once you get one, life as you’ve known it is altered forever.
Thirty-plus years ago, options for people with disabilities were limited; many folks inhabited bodies that didn’t work well and lived in a society that didn’t care. The Americans With Disabilites Act has forced an oblivious population to make necessary modifications for purposes of access and equality. The changing times have also fostered a surge in creativity and innovation.
Image-conscious people can now purchase canes with psychedelic, floral, paisley, plaid, or other patterns. Former jocks can strut their stuff with collapsible canes that sport a favorite college’s colors and emblem. Or, you can avoid canes altogether by opting for trekking poles that fit any height. Collapsible walkers in bright colors are equipped with baskets that hold gear and seats that enable tired bodies to relax. Wheelchairs are now compact and motorized. The options are endless.
People who can’t walk are able to operate customized vehicles. People whose fingers lack flexibility can purchase attractive clothing with Velcro closures. Contact lenses are now available for people who need bifocals. Hearing aids are so small that some people don’t notice that their companion is wearing one. CPAPs enable people to feel rested the next day.
New homes and buildings are now regularly outfitted with adaptive door handles, wider halls, barrier-free bathrooms, navigable ramps, and other innovations for people with disabilities. Independent living complexes are increasingly adding amenities that enable residents to remain in their own apartments, with additional supports and services as needed.
Still, stigma persists. Many of us who have no business ignoring our aches and pains continue to do so. Most of the time we’re lucky, and we spend happy years in mindless bliss. Eventually, though, some of us will sustain broken hips and limbs from sudden falls, or cause accidents due to missed cues. Once in a while, our injuries will become fatal, and we will exit this life long before we should.
Does it still make sense not to use an adaptive device if you need one?
I sure hope not.