The View from a Wheelchair

As a geriatric care manager for more than three decades, I’ve spent thousands of hours helping my clients cope with a wide range of mobility challenges—ensuring they have safe homes and systems in place that enable them to remain independent and well cared for, as long as possible.

But nothing brings home the reality of what so many with physical disabilities face than finding yourself unable to walk. This has been my struggle for the past month, ever since I stumbled and fell and broke my right ankle.

My ankle is healing—slowly—and I have another few weeks of relying on crutches, a knee scooter, my husband and good friends, and, occasionally, a wheelchair, to get around until I can put weight on my right foot again.

As a busy professional, volunteer, wife and mother, I have found it extraordinarily frustrating (not to mention painful) to be unable to do for myself and for others. It has also been very enlightening. Much as I have great empathy for my clients, my understanding of what they go through every day has deepened significantly.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the past few weeks of doctor’s appointments, managing my practice while unable to drive or climb stairs, dealing with accessibility issues and traveling to a family celebration far from home:

Our health care system needs to do a much better job of treating the whole individual and managing discharge planning for outpatients.

Despite excellent, compassionate treatment for my immediate injury by my medical professionals, not one person ever asked me what I do for a living, what kind of a home and work arrangement I have, and what help I might need making adjustments for my lack of mobility. I requested a home safety evaluation, but have yet to hear from anyone, weeks later.

As a GCM, I knew enough to request this service and have many resources at my disposal to make up for the lack of response, but most people are not so fortunate. Based on my experience, I will advocate even more strenuously for my clients and do my best to educate health care professionals about this crucial oversight.

Far too many public spaces lack carefully planned and executed adaptations for people in wheelchairs.

While out of town at our family celebration, I relied on a portable wheelchair for getting through airports and to some of our outings. All too often, I discovered ramps that were steep, doors that were impossible to access from a wheelchair, supposedly handicapped accessible hotel rooms located far from an elevator, and more.

As aware and enlightened as I believed myself to be about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I now realize how little I understood about the obstacles that so many individuals face when confined to their wheelchairs—and how much more work needs to be done to ensure that everyone has true access to public spaces.

Losing mobility is far more than a physical challenge.

Finding myself confined to a wheelchair made me feel diminished, dependent and somewhat helpless. If I had to deal with this for the long term, I’m sure I would find a way to adjust. But losing the ability to walk has not only be painful and exhausting; it’s also been aggravating and emotionally draining.

As one who is a doer all day long, I don’t like having to ask for help. Working my way through the healing process, I’m becoming much more aware of the delicate balance we need to strike between offering help to someone with disabilities when necessary and not being overly helpful, thereby inadvertently dishonoring his or her need to maintain a sense of self-reliance.

Even as I write these words, I realize I am lucky. My injury will heal in a few more weeks, and I’ll be back on both feet again. I have a loving, supportive husband, along with family and friends who have eased my path considerably. I have the knowledge and resources to modify my home and office as needed, and many professional connections who can provide me with the best medical advice available. I am strong and in otherwise good health, and I look forward to renewed energy as my ankle heals.

Not so for so many that I support through my work. If there is to be any silver lining to my broken ankle cloud, it is that I will take all of my insights gained through this experience and become an even better GCM for those I serve.

President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified geriatric care manager. Drawing on more than 30 years of professional experience in geriatric care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.

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