The journey of aging robs many older adults from living healthy, independent lives. Some challenges associated with this journey — chronic illness, memory issues, more frequent injury — can reduce mobility and prevent those aging in place from performing everyday activities.

One such activity is mealtime. For many, the dining room is the heart of any home. It’s where relationships are fostered and memories are made. But as people grow older, the otherwise simple task of getting seated at the table becomes an often frustrating experience for both them and the person now offering assistance. “I just didn’t expect mealtimes to become so difficult,” is a growing sentiment among members of today’s aging population.

The problem with dining chairs

When able-bodied people come to the dining table, they simply pull out a chair, position themselves between the table and the chair, grab some spot on the chair, and pull it forward in a scooting fashion. Most people take this series of actions for granted. But for the person with reduced mobility, such movement can prove impossible.

By itself, a standard dining chair can weigh anywhere from 20 to 35 pounds. With a little lifting or even dragging, it can be moved short distances to a new location such as up to a table. But once a person sits down on it, the chair does something important that we all take for granted: it remains still. By not moving, the chair provides safety and stability to the seated person while he or she occupies it.

But what happens when a person with reduced mobility occupies a chair? As before, the chair has to be pulled out and positioned away from the table. Once the person is seated, that chair goes from 35 pounds to around 200 pounds or more. Now another person must make the four-legged chair do something it was never designed for. That person must must push, pull, shove and twist that chair into position at the table and then repeat that process when the meal is done.

In short, a traditional dining chair is not designed to accommodate the needs of someone with reduced mobility, nor is it helpful to the person standing behind the chair.

The severity of the problem

A recent Harvard study tell us that 41% of people aged more than 65 years are dealing with some degree of physical immobility. That means that two out of every five older adults may experience difficulty at mealtime.

Life expectancy in the United States is close to 79 years old. That means that more older adults are living for a longer period of time with reduced mobility, the vast majority of whom desire to “age in place.”

Further, the majority of people requiring caregiving assistance are receiving that care from a fellow aging spouse. That increases the risk of both spouses becoming injured or immobile, forcing many to sell their houses and live in a care community elsewhere. In many cases, an adult child takes on the burden of providing that care, although the need to balance a life of many responsibilities can make that burden difficult to manage.

The cost of remodeling a home to accommodate the unique needs that older adults face when aging in place are as high as ever. Between customized construction and specialized FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment), a sizable portion of one’s life savings must go to re-tooling the house. Now add to that the cost of replacing dining chairs and carpeting every seven years (instead of 15 to 20), and one can quickly see that the problem is both widely shared and severe.

Failed solutions

Many of the conventional mobility devices on the market today do not solve the problem. Wheelchairs and walkers/rollators work great for transportation (getting from one locale to another) but create a few problems when it comes to mealtimes.

  1. The average rollator sits approximately six inches higher than a dining chair. The attached seat is ideal for short breaks but quite uncomfortable for dining when considering a relaxed mealtime.
  2. Not all wheelchairs are created equal. Some have armrests that sit higher than an average chair, and when wheeled up to the table, the arms prevent the chair from getting close enough to the eating surface. Beyond that, many older adults resist using the wheelchair as a dining chair because of the stigma of weakness or frailty it is perceived to represent. They desire what they view as dignity at the dining table.

A true solution

The answer of the problem starts in the form of a question: How does a caregiver move a seated person with reduced mobility up to or away from a dining table with ease and without risk of personal injury? Logically, what is needed is a chair that moves easily but also provides stability after being moved. A chair with four wheels is unsafe because it can roll away from someone as he or she exits the chair. In fact, the only plausible solution is a chair that can both move under someone’s control and then be made stationary afterward.

In recent years, mobility-assisted dining chairs have sought to provide such flexibility.

Those chairs provide the ability to turn 360 degrees on casters with foot brakes. This ability is particularly ideal for caregivers who need the mobility to easily move a seated person (even those who weigh more than 300 pounds) but also need the ability to apply the brakes once they have positioned the chair at the table. Those chairs, from the seat up, look just like normal dining chairs, but depending on their application, provide the mobility and stability below the seat.

In a few short years, the bulk of the baby boomer generation will reach retirement age (the older boomers are turning 75 this year, and the youngest are turning 57) and will make up 20% to 25% of our population. Whether they choose to live at home or in a care community, they deserve dignity in this new season of life.

It has been said that the dining room is heart of every home, and that the best of memories and relationships are fostered there. If that’s true, then something as practical as a dining chair can play a major role in delivering that dignity in the years ahead.

Scott Cyre is the director of education and communication for ComforTek Seating, a chair manufacturing company located both in Lethbridge, Alberta, and Victoria, VA. Its line of chairs that “swivel…turn…roll…and brake for safety” are available for senior living communities, skilled nursing facilities and home care. He may be reached at [email protected].