by LIZ TAYLOR
When my parents moved to an assisted living community in their late 70s, my mom lived in a special memory unit because she was severely disabled from Alzheimer’s. My dad lived in his own apartment down the hall and up one floor from her, and he visited daily.
My dad – deaf and nearly blind – hadn’t been able to fix much more than canned meals for years. Now they were eating nutritiously. Even better, they were with other people rather than sitting bored, isolated and alone in their long-time home every day. And my mom was getting the special care that people with dementia need. My dad’s eventual downfall (literally) began after he’d lived at the assisted living for a couple of years. On the spur of the moment, he bought an electric scooter to get around. It was easy to use and fun to drive, but he probably wouldn’t have died in a nursing home if he had just forced himself to continue the boring, tiring, muscle-using chore of walking.
He began riding to everything – the dining room, visiting my mom, shopping, even to the bathroom. His muscles turned to mush. It’s called “sarcopenia,” which means the severe withering of muscle and strength due to long periods of inactivity. It’s believed to cause 90 percent of the 300,000 hip fractures that occur each year among older people in this country. Three weeks after my mom’s death, my dad fell in the shower, his leg muscles so weak that no amount of rehab could get him back on his feet again. He moved to a nursing home solely because he needed two people to transfer him in and out of a wheelchair or bed.
What happened to my dad (and millions of older people like him) is an unintended consequence of allowing technology to make us lazy enough to disable us. While scooters can be lifelines for people who are truly disabled – so immobilized that they need real help getting out in the world – they can be disastrous for those who don’t need them, and plenty of people who ride them don’t need them, putting them at high risk of suffering the same loss of muscle that my dad did.
Medicare subsidizes scooters for people who, due to “medical necessity,” are unable to use a cane, walker or wheelchair. Costing $2,500 to $3,500 each, they’re free if you can get a doctor to prescribe one – but doctors, critics say, don’t understand the rules, nor do their patients who demand to have one. Federal authorities estimate that up to 80 percent of the scooters and power wheelchairs Medicare buys each year go to people who don’t meet the requirements.
The saying “Use it or lose it” is real. We put health warnings on cigarettes. Now, perhaps, we need to do the same for scooters: “This scooter may be dangerous to your health and independence.”
Liz Taylor has worked in the aging field for almost 40 years. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.