There's a fine line between getting old and losing your independence, and Richard DeFeo became concerned when he saw his wife, Ellen, tottering on that line as she struggled to place her walker onto the back seat of her car.
"Ellen has a problem collapsing her walker and putting it in and pulling it out of the car when she has to go to rehab," Richard said. "I've been driving her there, and in the process I am discovering that she would rather have more independence and be able to do this herself."
"However, the walker itself prohibits that because when I collapse the walker, it doesn't stay collapsed," he continued. "There is nothing to engage so that it stays collapsed."
"So, just putting it in and taking it out of the car is problematic," Richard said. "The more I looked at it, the more I realized there are a lot of other things that should be ergonomic and weren't for her, and I suspect for many people who use a walker."
Richard and Ellen live in Jim Thorpe. Ellen goes twice a week to Gnaden Huetten Memorial Hospital for rehab for pulmonary therapy. She stopped smoking over 10 years ago, but up to that point she had smoked for 40 years. She's been using the walker for about a year.
Although Ellen has no difficulty with the physical act of walking, she quickly runs out of breath. The 15-pound walker both makes it easier for her to walk, and it has a seat which offers her a place to rest when she gets out of breath.
A "walking frame" became available in England in the early 1950s. In 1957, wheels were added to this design, and in 1970, a foldable version became available. The modern walker, which incorporates four wheels, handlebar-mounted brakes, a seat, and a lightweight foldable design was produced in Sweden in 1978 and called a "rollator".
But to Richard, a retired industrial designer, there are several problems with the ergonomic design of the walker. One problem is when Ellen goes to use the seat, the walker moves.
"The handbrake doesn't stay locked," Richard said. "You have to engage it and hold it for it not to move. She has to turn around and sit down in the walker while keeping the handgrip engaged; otherwise it will roll away. People that have this problem push the walker up against a wall, so that when they sit down it doesn't roll away from them."
"I've been talking to chiropractors and the people at the rehab, and personally watching people using walkers at the hospital," Richards said. "I observed that a lot of people who use the walker are required to use the handbrake. It's somewhat of a pistol grip, and is difficult for people who don't have sufficient strength. It would be better if they just squeezed it and the brake held fast and you didn't have to hold it closed."
"My idea is to eliminate the handgrip and use a brake that is engaged right on the wheel, not unlike some baby carriages where you just press with your foot and it stays engaged."
"I intend to go to several nursing homes to talk to some of the people. Most people think walkers are just for the elderly, but are young people to who have problems needing a walker, so solving or improving the walker will help people of all ages."
One problem that vexes DeFeo is getting the walker in and out of the car. "People put it either in the back seat or in the trunk. If someone was driving alone, it is awkward to get it either out of the backseat door or out of the trunk," he said. "This improvement that I have in mind will allow it to slide right across the seat. My design is more collapsible and smaller, while still being adjustable."
"When a conventional walker is placed in the back seat of a car, the handles tend to catch in the door jam or the seat in front. In collapsing it, it doesn't stay collapsed. It doesn't lock in place when it's collapsed. You have to struggle with it opening as you are trying to slide it into a back seat or a trunk."
"The handles themselves or another problem-they need to be able to turn, so they don't stick out. In addition, the cables that go from the handgrip to the brake tend to catch on things. I'm looking at a design that will eliminate that."The sale has reviewed about 75 different models on the Internet. "Some have one or two of the features that I'm talking about but lack the others. The ergonomics doesn't seem to be quite right for many people.
DeFeo is completing his design and hopes to develop several prototypes to allow people to test.
"I'm excited about it because it's not only going to help my wife, but help a lot of other folks who may have a similar problem. More than anything, Ellen would really like to have her independence and go places and handle the walker by herself, without me, even though I'm happy to do it."
Asked what he plans to call this new design, DeFeo replied, "The Wonder Walker."