Choosing a walker or rollator

When you choose a walker, it's important to take the user's hand strength and cognitive ability into account. Rollators with brakes and seats are wonderful, but can be dangerous if the user lacks the strength or presence of mind to operate them safely.

Here are some additional factors to consider when choosing the best walker:

  • Consult a physical therapist if possible. A PT can also adjust the walker's size properly and teach you how to use it safely. This is especially valuable if the walker is needed because of an injury. If you don't have access to a PT, most experts recommend that the walker's handles be adjusted level with the crease of your wrist. (Stand in your shoes, with your arms hanging straight at your side.)
  • Not all walkers fit through bathroom doors. Check the width of bathroom doorways in the user's primary residence; many are only 24 inches wide.
  • Check the fit to your body. The handlebars on more walkers, and occasionally the seat, adjust up and down to fit your body. Be sure the width of both seat and frame are wide enough for whoever will be using the walker, and that it's rated to bear the user's weight. If the walker or rollator has a seat, your feet should be flat on the floor when you're seated.
  • Look at warranty and parts availability. Warranties vary among brands, and customer service and parts availability differ even more. If a walker is used regularly, some parts like wheels will need replacing from time to time. Using a walker with worn or damaged parts, or disregarding manufacturer instructions to use specific parts, can put you at risk of an injury.
  • Wheels and glides matter. For indoor use, small wheels 3 to 5 inches in diameter are fine. For outdoor use, larger wheels of 6 to 8 inches are better. Tires that are too hard may slip, so softer tires are safer even though they'll wear faster. If a walker uses glides, read reviews or test before purchase to be sure they won't scratch your floors.
  • Consider ease and safety of folding. Whenever possible, have the person who'll be using the walker practice folding and unfolding it to make sure they're comfortable with the process. Beware of trigger-style releases on a folding frame; accidentally gripping the release instead of the walker handle will cause the walker to start collapsing. You may also like to have a clip or strap to keep your walker folded.
  • Compare storage and accessories. Rollators (and some frame walkers) come with a basket or pouch for extra storage; some users prefer the closed pouches because they say they're less likely to tempt a robber. Add-on storage bags and cup holders are available to fit just about any walker, but be sure the accessories you want will fit the walker you choose. For example, a paddle release on the top bar of a folding frame walker could prevent the use of a food tray.

Walker safety requires vigilance

Two common misunderstandings interfere with walker satisfaction, and can even make a walker dangerous despite good construction. First, it can be tempting to use a walker equipped with a seat and wheels as a wheelchair, or for the user to roll around the room while seated. Yet these rollators aren't designed to withstand such use, even when the user doesn't weigh much. Such improper use can weaken the frame, wheels or seat and cause the walker to break.

Another misconception concerns walker maintenance. Walker frames often carry lifetime warranties, but most parts built into walkers will wear out with normal use. Many users are surprised when their walker's wheels, brakes, handles or seat need replacing after about a year. When choosing one, be sure that replacement parts are readily available.

For safety, all parts of a walker should be checked at least weekly for damage or wear. If anything seems to be wrong, fix it before the walker is used again. Examine the frame and joints, check the brakes, and lean on the seat hard to make sure it doesn't crack under stress. If the user can't or won't do this, someone else must. This might seem obvious, but we found reports made to the FDA about walker accidents that could have been prevented by good maintenance or prompt repairs.