Monday 14 April 2014

Sunday 13th April - The Electric Wheelchair Adventure

"This style of chair is typically compact, will have a small turning circle and is designed primarily to be used either indoors or in shopping centres/places with smooth ground. They are not very suitable for general outdoor use as they will have low ground clearance."
This is the kind of electric wheelchair that my mother uses in the flat. I was a bit disconcerted to see that this model is "on offer" for £2899, instead of the usual £2999. In other words, the same price as a nearly-decent second-hand car.

This Sunday, our assistance was requested to enable my father to take my mother on a trip round the local nature reserve in this chair... I suggested that before we load my mother up and embark upon this adventure, we load my father up and "test drive" the whole scenario.

So the men left my mother comfortably in bed for the afternoon, with the Sunday papers to hand, and, step by step, checked out the logistical details. From time to time I was called upon to act as my mother's "stunt double".

Here's what I observed....

1. Driving the electric wheelchair over the threshold into the lobby of the flat was harder than easing the "push-chair" over the ledge; you can't gently control the motion of the chair, but need to take a bit of a run at it, so the occupant has to be prepared for a considerable jolt and jiggle as the front and back wheels cram themselves over the barrier. Hmmm. My mother doesn't have a great deal of strength in her neck muscles, so her head would have been shaken about, and her left arm and leg are currently quite painful. Food for thought.

2. Having got the e-wheelchair out of their flat, it won't climb the higher ledge to get back in again! And it is too heavy for my father to lift it over the ledge when I am sitting in it!  Well, that could have been Very Awkward indeed! We will need to made a ramp to get back into the flat. Actually, in order to save my mother from a painful jolting, we need to make a ramp to get out of the flat as well.

3. We can get the electric wheelchair into the minuscule lift with someone (me) in it. I was under instructions NOT to move any of my left side. That is a lot harder than it sounds as several times I wanted to move my left foot out of the way rather than have it half-trodden on while my father manoeuvred around to get me into the lift, and then wedge himself in as well to operate the lift buttons. (My mother's left foot is very sensitive and easily hurt by being pushed, shoved, or, worst of all, trodden on).

4. We needed to use the pair of heavy-duty metal ramps to get the e-wheelchair out of the building as there is a big step down. All went well for a minute or so, and then I stopped moving. What had happened? The motors for the drive wheels had ridden up on the safety lips of the ramps, so the wheels were spinning in mid-air... The problem was easily solved - I got out of the chair, and we re-aligned the ramps. Sorted.

5. We tested getting the e-wheelchair and me in and out of the car - no serious problems. The anti-tip bars at the back came into play as I was being reversed back down the ramp, but there was enough  momentum to complete the disembarkation without upset (in every meaning of the word!)

6. Finally, the men went on a little excursion round the nearby pond, with my father driving and my husband in attendance as the escort outrider, or maybe outwalker. They appeared about three-quarters of an hour later, triumphant but whacked out, (having carried the empty wheelchair back over the threshold into the flat.)

The whole exercise was very useful, and, on the whole, a success, which is why I have set it down in full for our future reference.
Here are some of my own further thoughts, from playing the part of the stunt double:

If ever you are in the position of looking after someone in a wheelchair, pushing them around a park or whatever, I think it is an excellent plan if you can make an opportunity to physically put yourself in their place for real, and be pushed around by someone first.

I was completely taken aback at how much the jolting over thresholds and ends of ramps, and even the almost invisible lumps and bumps in the pathways affected my balance in the chair. If I had been suffering from painful joints, I would have been SUFFERING by the time I have been loaded up into the car, and I guess being driven around would not have felt any more comfortable. Also, I have reasonable muscle tone and strength to support and control my upper body, but my mother does not.

I was also not prepared for the level of anxiety and insecurity I felt, especially going up and down slopes. Even though I had confidence that my father wouldn't actually tip me over or run the wheelchair over the edge of the ramp, I still felt tense and "on red alert" while these operations were in progress.

Finally, driving the e-wheelchair isn't like a fairground game. I found that I had to concentrate to keep myself straight, pick a smooth path, watch out for obstacles. It reminded me of when I first learned to drive and all I ever took any notice of was the immediate view through the steering wheel. So, an outing "in the country" wouldn't actually involve taking in any of the scenery at all, except when parked up in some pleasant spot. Travelling along the paths would be more like a jolting yomp through hostile territory.

All in all, being the passenger in a wheelchair isn't the passive, relaxing experience that I had anticipated.

This is not to say that The Plan is a Bad Idea in principle. I think it has distinct possibilities. We just need to work out how to maximise all the positive elements, namely

getting out, seeing flowers and birds and people, change of scene, fresh air, something new to talk about, easy, spacious, smooth environment for driving the chair in

while reducing the negative elements
exhausting messing about manoeuvring the e-wheelchair out of the flat, down the lift, down the ramps, into the car, and the tiring mental and physical effort of steering the e-wheelchair over narrow, lumpy-bumpy jolting paths.
Now to plan Phase Two. I have my eye on the sensory garden in the local park with disabled parking spaces beside the entrance, broad, flat, smooth paths, flowers, people to watch, convenient cafĂ©...

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