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Healthy wheels

I have bought a wheelchair. And if it’s a bit sad to be quite excited by it and what it promises, then OK: guilty as charged.

I borrowed one at Tate Britain last month so that I could push My Loved One round the Van Gogh in London exhibition and by golly it really improved the experience for both of us.  People politely parted so that we could see the paintings and captions properly. And I didn’t have to worry about MLO flagging, feeling dizzy and needing to sit down. He and Ms Alzheimer’s were securely contained in their temporary vehicle. Win win.

Then a couple of days later we met our younger son and his family at Chartwell where, again, with MLO safely installed in a National Trust wheelchair neither he nor we had to fret about steps, slopes and standing about.

It convinced me that we could make good use of one on a daily basis. MLO now walks mostly in a very slow, short-stepped trudge That, apparently, is a classic Parkinson’s symptom and therefore part of the “mixed dementias” our consultant now thinks he has. When he’s not trudging he loses control of his legs as if he were trying to run. And that’s terrifying as I try desperately to keep him upright while his feet paddle out of control, his body veers all over the path and I struggle to steer – most of the way along Upper Street, for example, when I (unwisely?) took him to see HMS Pinafore at King’s Head Theatre recently. It’s only a matter of time, if we continue thus, before he goes flat on his face and takes me with him. Then, if we’re both injured we really shall be in trouble.

Hence the wheelchair. I looked online but the options are as complicated as buying a car and it’s a learning curve (who knew that a “bariatric wheelchair” is one designed for a heavily obese user?) so I went to an excellent place in Penge where very helpful staff sold me a lightweight one which I can lift and which fits easily in the car –  for a hundred pounds less than anything I’d seem online.

It means we can explore the local parks and here in south London we’re blessed with lots of lovely ones. I can also push him to one of three local shopping centres if only to have a cup of tea and come home again. It’s very much what I used to do with babies and young children in prams and pushchairs – fresh air and a change of scenery even if it’s only a few ducks, a pretty flowerbed or half an hour in a coffee shop. It’s a relief too to be able to progress at my own speed rather than toiling along in frustration at about one mile an hour.

And, it will be much easier when I take him with me to, say, Chichester (twice this week) or Canterbury to get him from car to restaurant to theatre. And I might experiment with taking the wheelchair into central London by train if I can work out some step free routes, MLO spends too much time at home doing very little. If I can get him out a bit more on his new wheels then that’s got to be a good thing. Activities are supposed to help counter Ms A. And although he evinces very little enthusiasm for anything these days, MLO doesn’t seem to mind being pushed about.

And there’s another huge bonus. I used to do quite a lot of exercise – swimming, hooping, weights, mini trampolining etc – and until about 2016 MLO and I would do regular, middle distance walks of 5 to 6 miles. In the last couple of years it has all fallen away, thanks to Ms A. For a start I have to spend almost every waking moment doing my three jobs: carer, domestic, writer. Even if I do find myself with a rare, spare hour I feel obliged to devote it to MLO whom it’s increasingly difficult to leave “unsupervised” for more than a very short time. For a long time now my exercise routine has been reduced to gratefully striding between tube stations when I can and taking stairs rather than lifts and escalators.

Well, my weight is more or less OK at present but I’m jolly flabby. Not for much longer, I suspect. Pushing a wheelchair with an adult man onboard – even one who tips the scales at barely 9 stone – immediately finds muscles you didn’t know you had. Pushing it up a slope (plenty of those in our area) really works your thighs and calves and even proceeding on the flat makes you use your whole upper body and back. With every step I can feel my fitness improving and it’s extraordinary how much better that makes me feel.

I’m not banking on too many more summers but I reckon this one could be quite a lot better than it might have been.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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