“What’s new, Pete?” I asked when I arrived to find him waiting for the music to start. He pointed to his new walker, and announced he’d gotten rid of his old “piece of junk.” The old walker was too low for a towering man like Pete, exacerbating his already stooped posture. And it was flimsy, so he didn’t feel safe using it. Now he had the Cadillac of walkers: sturdy, extra tall, shiny black. He was thrilled.
I rarely see an older person using a cane anymore. It’s all walkers now. Wherever residents gather in assisted living centers, walkers gather too, in areas resembling crowded, haphazard parking lots.
These are not the walkers of yesterday. You know, the ones with tennis balls stuck on the bottom of the legs to make them slide, so the user didn’t have to pick up the walker, move it forward, then step ahead to follow, like an inchworm. Today’s walkers come in bright colors and glide smoothly on four wheels. They have built-in seats with storage beneath, baskets and hanging pockets, even cup holders.
Years ago, Jerry Seinfeld did a comedy bit about walkers, specifically about brakes on walkers:
I’m sure Seinfeld’s observation is a lot funnier to those of us lucky enough to still be walking without assistance. I’m one of those, and I like walking for exercise—outside if the weather is warm enough, but on a treadmill in my basement for the other six months of the year in Michigan.
Walking had an important purpose in the bygone days of chaperones: it gave young lovers time alone together. “Walking songs” grew especially popular during the Depression. No matter how broke, everyone could afford to take a walk. That’s the idea behind “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” a lighthearted swing number from 1930. Once when I played the song at a senior center, a man called out from across the room, “Of course we had to walk—gas was too expensive!” He seemed offended that the song’s lyrics romanticize the difficult financial situation characterizing his courting days.
I walk fast as I go about my day. My family calls it my MSU walk, referring to the quick pace I needed while a student, to navigate Michigan State’s huge campus during the 20-minute class exchange. Sally—a dancer I’ve written about a couple of times—also walks fast. She turned 100 last month. She grips her walker, leans slightly forward as if facing a strong headwind, and goes. She builds up momentum as she crosses the room to the piano, where I’m treated to a display of her fancy footwork. Sure, walking is fine. But her boots are made for dancin’.
Copyright © 2015 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.