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Going Mobile

The Latest in Wheelchairs, Scooters & Lifts

The latest wheelchairs, scooters and lifts are ultralight, ultraportable and fully equipped. However, because of Medicare and Medicaid cuts, it’s become increasingly difficult to get financial help to cover the cost of mobility products.

Golden Technologies

If you’ve seen former President George H. W. Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush on TV these days, you might have noticed that they use a matching pair of mobility scooters to get around sometimes. The high-profile Bushes have discovered what countless senior citizens and baby boomers are discovering every year: Mobility products, such as scooters, aren’t just prescribed devices for those who have a significant disability.

“I began having trouble walking and will never forget the tears I shed upon getting my first scooter,” says 78-year-old Nellie Elliot, who is the former owner of a chain of music stores in Southern California. “I loved it and, what’s more, nobody gave me a second glance.”

In the past 5 years, manufacturers have dramatically expanded the number of scooters, lifts and wheelchairs that they make for consumers who are in need of a little assistance to get around due to hip, knee or leg problems.

And you no longer need to go through a medical-equipment supplier to buy a model. Mobility products now are widely available in big-box stores and online. Plus, prices are lower than ever before. For example, the average price of a scooter is $1,300, which is down $300 from 2 years ago.

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LIGHT ON WHEELS. Scooters have seen improvements in maneuverability and versatility in the past 5 years. If you bought a scooter in 2006, it would have had a heavy seat, a large one-piece chassis and two battery boxes that had a tangled web of connectors. Today, most scooters have an ultralight removable seat; a lighter, more stable chassis; and a single battery box that has self-aligning connectors. The result: Today’s scooters can be loaded into a vehicle and transported by those who have limited strength and coordination, and it can be stowed in the smallest of automobile trunks.

The scooter market has divided into two new subcategories—travel scooters and full-size models. The newest travel scooters are the best for portability and maneuvering indoors, because they now have a turning radius that’s as small as 30 inches. Yet they’re sturdy enough to hold between 250 and 300 pounds and be used outdoors. The latest models can be quickly snapped apart into three pieces. (Pieces weigh as little as 22 pounds.)

The latest full-size scooters are typically 12 inches longer, 6 inches wider and 100 pounds heavier than are travel scooters. Manufacturers tell us that 2012 models will include stronger suspensions for improved handling and comfort; liquid-crystal display instrument panels; and fully adjustable seats, mirrors and lights. You can expect to pay about $3,000 for a model that has all of these features.

Until 2005, power wheelchairs (wheelchairs that are powered by an electric motor) were designed primarily for those who had severe disabilities. But since Medicare insurance for mobility products became harder to obtain and consumer demand for products that cost more than $8,000 crumbled, a dozen manufacturers have introduced ultracompact portable power wheelchairs that range from $2,000 to $6,000. The newest models are similar to a travel scooter: They have a removable seat, a lightweight battery box that can be lifted easily and a split-frame chassis that allows all four wheels to stay on the ground when the wheelchair moves over an angled or uneven surface. What’s best of all, you can find these features in models that cost as little as $2,500.

The latest versions of these new models have a turning radius of as tight as 26 inches and are only 19 inches wide. That makes the wheelchair agile enough to pivot in a narrow kitchen or bathroom.

As for manual wheelchairs, they have increased in availability, become lighter and plummeted in price. You now can get a 13-pound wheelchair for as little as $200 in regular stores or online. Five years ago, the lightest models weighed 20 pounds, cost at least $500 and were sold only by medical-equipment suppliers.