When Peggy Chisholm's mother, a fashion-conscious senior citizen, developed mobility problems and needed a cane, Chisholm and her siblings searched for something more stylish than the basic options available in local medical-supply stores. They came up empty-handed.
Canes with panache, they found, were decorative rather than functional, while most weight-bearing models were available only in basic black, brown or aluminum.
"Appearance was very important to my mother," says Chisholm. "Just because she needed a cane didn't mean she'd lost her sense of style. We'd planned on getting her several interesting canes she could use for different occasions, but couldn't even find one."
Chisholm realized that she probably wasn't the only cane consumer frustrated by the lack of choices and decided to do something about it. Just back from a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, the 60-year-old created Raising Cane, a catalog and Internet business, www.getacane.com, specializing in attractive and unusual canes and walking sticks from around the world. Customers include teenagers with sport injuries, baby boomers with hip or knee replacements and 90-year-olds in retirement homes.
Canes with class
"All of my customers, regardless of age or infirmity, say the same thing," says Chisholm, a former public relations professional who lives in Minnesota. "They don't want an 'old person cane."'
And they don't get one. The catalog features more than 100 walking aids, including antique reproductions of 18th-century European designs with brass, silver, crystal, porcelain and ivory heads, brightly colored options with whimsical designs, fabric-wrapped models and even the NASCAR Official Racing Stick, complete with crossed black-and-white checkered flags and car numbers. Some have secret compartments hiding flasks or pool cues, while another flips over to become a putter.
All Raising Cane products are functional, weight-bearing and rubber-tipped for safety. The catalog also features wrist straps to prevent "runaway canes" and ice gripper tips for better traction on snow or ice. Chisholm says the unusual accessories also provide a psychological boost to those using them. Prices for the canes range from a low of $40 for a lightweight folding travel cane to $400 for a solid bronze model, with most priced from $45 to $75.
"When you carry an accessory that is elegant or sharp or fun, it takes the focus off why you need it," says Chisholm. "People relate to your sense of style, not your infirmity."
Seniors often purchase canes to help stabilize balance compromised by new glasses, medications, inner ear disorders, arthritis and other medical conditions that can cause dizziness and threaten mobility. Research shows there's good cause for concern. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, falls are the leading cause of injury deaths among the elderly and the most common cause of injuries and hospital admissions for trauma.
One-third of people older than 65 fall each year, and the resulting injuries can lead to loss of independence. Forty percent of nursing home admissions can be traced to falls. Just the fear of falling can lead to inactivity and isolation among the elderly.
But experts say many falls can be prevented. Strategies include exercises to improve strength, balance and flexibility; reviews of medications that can affect balance; and home modifications such as grab bars, improved lighting and removal of items that may cause tripping. Gait training and advice on the appropriate use of assistive devices -- such as canes and walkers -- can also help.
If you are considering using a cane, remember that not all styles work for everyone.
The Mayo Clinic offers the following tips on making the right choice for your needs:
The traditional candy-cane style with a curved handle can be difficult to grasp and may not be your best choice if you need to use a cane everyday. Several different handgrip styles and shapes are available. Choose the one that feels most comfortable. Canes with four feet offer greater stability than do straight canes but can be cumbersome. A lightweight cane is less of a burden. Both types can help take weight off a painful joint or leg.