Charlie Farquharson's mobility advice for seniors

Actor Don Harron recently started using a cane, and now he's lending his alter ego Charlie Farquharson to a campaign to help other seniors consider the benefits of devices that keep people steady on their feet.

Actor Don Harron recently started using a cane, and now he's lending his alter ego Charlie Farquharson to a campaign to help other seniors consider the benefits of devices that keep people steady on their feet.

Harron, 84, realized it was time for a cane after a comment from a friend hit home.

He performs in a show in which he plays four different characters, including himself, Charlie in his trademark worn sweater and cap, the rich city cousin Valerie Rosedale and the Scottish cousin Hamish.

Some of the characters have a golf club or a standup microphone to lean on, he said.

"As Don Harron I stand and sometimes move about for 20 minutes, and a friend of mine said 'Were you drinking?'

"I said 'No.'

"He said, 'Well, you were staggering about like a man under the influence.'

"And I didn't realize that I was doing it.

"Charlie, of course, did the same, but nobody cares about what Charlie does, and I decided that I better do something about it."

And now, he's urging others to take action too. His laughing character Charlie graces the front of 50,000 postcards showing him using a cane, scooter and walker and urging folks to "Get over bein' an old fogey! Get a handle on life."

The cards are being sent this week to seniors in rural areas across Canada. In addition, he's featured in a public service television commercial.

Seniors 'embarrassed' by devices

At the helm of the project, funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, is Christine Flegal, a gerontologist who leads the Living Lab at the B.C. Institute of Technology.

A survey conducted in January found that seven in 10 seniors report having a mobility or health issue that reduces their quality of life due to a physical limitation. However, 46 per cent of those seniors don't use an assistive device.

The telephone survey of 1,000 people ages 70 and over was conducted by Ipsos Reid, and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

"It just confirms my research and my belief that seniors are embarrassed. They're too proud to want to use these devices," Flegal said.

"Seven out of 10 seniors have some type of mobility issue that prevents them from doing the things that they want to do. They've fallen, they don't feel as steady on their feet.

"Yet the majority say, 'No, I don't need a device.' So there's some contradictions there. And when we delved a little deeper, we found that a third of them actually believed that using a device makes them look old and frail."

Hip protectors prevent fractures

By calling a number on the cards (1-888-441-0771) seniors can obtain kits with information about canes, scooters, walkers, hip protectors and grab bars.

Hip protectors are worn like underwear, and include either a hard shell or a soft shell on either side of the hip bone, said Flegal.

"This is the one device that research has shown actually prevents a hip fracture from occurring if they wear them," she explained.

"You pay $100 up front, but this is going to give you a lifetime of support in terms of your health. Because research shows that when a senior does fall and break your hip, there's a 25 per cent chance that they'll die in that first year."

The protectors might be recommended for frail people and those with osteoporosis, she said.

Occupational therapists are the best health professional to talk to about any of the devices, she noted.

Stylish supports

Manufacturers are starting to introduce items that are less institutional looking.

"Now you'll find walkers in a wide array of colours, you'll see all different sorts of canes, not the typical aluminum steel ones. So manufacturers are slowly starting to move away from the medical model and make these things start looking funky."

In addition to trying to remove the stigma that might be associated with the use of a cane, walker or scooter, Flegal and Harron want to quash the notion that using these devices could make people more vulnerable.

"The majority of the seniors said, 'I feel like I'm at greater risk to be targeted for crime if I use a cane or a walker,"' Flegal said.

In fact, Statistics Canada figures indicate that seniors are the least targeted population, she said. And Harron noted that a cane is not a bad weapon for self-defence.

"Old people are afraid that they're going to be attacked by young thugs, but as Charlie says, 'The sadistics are that they're not.' It's people that are much younger who are hassled by young guys."