Choosing the right mobility aid is an essential step to improving the quality of life. There are several different models available on the market, and picking the one that best suits your or your loved one’s needs can be challenging.
While walkers and rollators may seem to be similar at first glance, there are some major differences in both structure and use cases.
Besides showing you the differences and similarities between walkers and rollators, my goal is to help you select the type of walking aid that will serve you best.
Without further ado, let’s see what you need to know and consider when choosing a mobility aid.
What Is a Walker?
A walker is basically a lightweight but sturdy frame that has four legs and it’s usually made of aluminum (or other metal). Walkers are also called walking frames and they’re among the most common mobility aids.
Here’s what a front-wheeled walker looks like:
A walker provides support when changing position, therefore it improves stability and balance for people with mobility issues.
A walker helps you get from point A to point B more safely as it reduces the risk of falling.
While mobility disorders tend to become more common with age, walkers are not exclusively used by the elderly. Sometimes, due to an injury or fracture, you may not be able to put any weight on one of your feet. In this situation, a walking frame can be extremely useful.
A walker can have a maximum of two wheels, however, basic walkers do not have any.
Let’s move on to the pros and cons of a walker.
- lightweight frame
- most walkers feature adjustable height
- walkers without wheels offer great stability and firm support for people with balance issues
- can be used during non-weight bearing recovery
- most models are foldable, therefore they require little space for storage
- you need some arm strength to operate a non-wheeled model as you have to lift the frame to move forward
- not appropriate for longer journeys
- hard to use on uneven surfaces
- it’s more difficult to maneuver with a walker than with a rollator
- a walker does not have a seat
- most models do not come with a bag or basket but you can buy one separately
- certain models may contribute to poor posture when used for extended periods
Types of Walkers
Several types of walkers exist on the market, here are the most common ones:
Basic (standard) walker. It’s a walking frame that has four legs with glide caps (or tennis balls) and no wheels. It offers excellent stability.
Two-wheeled walker. It’s a basic walker with wheels attached to the front two legs. It requires less arm strength than a basic walker as you don’t have to lift the whole frame, just the back part.
Hemi walker. It’s a walking aid that is meant to be used by one hand. It’s designed for people who have a weak arm (due to paralysis, a broken bone, or other reason), and as a consequence, they can’t use a standard walker. A hemi walker is more stable than a cane but provides less support than a basic walker.
Posterior (or reverse) rolling walker. While a traditional walker can be used by pushing it in front of you, a posterior walker is behind you and you have to pull it while walking. It may improve posture and it’s often used by children with specific diseases. A posterior walker can have two or four wheels.
What Is a Rollator?
Structurally, a rollator is pretty similar to a walker. Simply put, rollators are wheeled walkers (also called rolling walkers).
A rollator either has three or four legs which all have wheels attached and usually, two of them can swivel.
Moreover, rollators often come with several features, such as a basket or padded seat. Walkers normally do not have any of those.
Below you can see a typical rollator:
All rollators have hand breaks which is a necessary safety feature to enhance the stability of the device.
It’s important to know that in most cases the hand brakes only stop the rear wheels. That’s one of the reasons why a rollator walker is not the best choice for those who need firm support or have a balance problem.
Rollators are usually more robust than walking frames, therefore they weigh more. The weight difference between a walker and a rollator is often significant.
Fortunately, you don’t have to lift a rollator while using it (as opposed to a walker), instead, it simply needs to be pushed.
Let’s see some advantages and disadvantages of most rollators.
- cushioned seat and backrest
- robust design
- storage basket and/or other accessories
- you need to push it instead of lifting
- relatively easy to maneuver (especially true in the case of a three-wheeled rollator)
- can be used for longer outdoor journeys
- ideal for those with weaker arms
- larger wheels compared to two-wheeled walkers
- not the best choice for people with balance issues
- not as stable as a walker (it can easily slip forward when not used properly)
- offer less support while standing
- more expensive
- heavier than a walking frame
- in certain cases, it may contribute to poor posture
What Are The Differences Between a Walker and a Rollator?
As you can see, a rollator and a standard walker differ in quite a few ways. The following table shows the general differences between the two devices.
|Walker (without wheels)||Rollator|
|Number of wheels||Zero||Four|
|Basket or bag||No (usually)||Yes|
|Number of legs||Four||Three or four|
|Do you need to lift the device?||Yes||No|
|Firm immobile support||Yes||No|
|Is it safe if you have balance problems?||Yes (in most cases)||No|
|Speed of moving forward||Slow||Faster|
Is a rollator better than a walker? Well, it depends on the use case and your situation. On the one hand, certain medical conditions, such as being non-weight bearing, do not allow you to use a traditional rollator.
On the other hand, rollators generally come with more features and improve mobility as they’re more convenient to use on longer journeys. But again, every case is different, sometimes, you simply do not have a choice and must use a walker or crutches.
Walker vs Rollator: Similarities
Although there are some fundamental differences between the two devices, walkers and rollators share some features in common. Let’s see them one by one.
- Both rollators and walkers are mostly made of metal. The frame material of most walkers is aluminum, while rollators can be made of steel or aluminum as well.
- The weight capacity range of the two mobility aids overlaps, as it’s usually between 250 lbs and 500 lbs.
- In most cases, the height of both devices is adjustable.
- Their width varies depending on the model. A narrow walker or rollator can be extremely useful when you need to maneuver in small spaces or through narrow doorways. You can find more information about narrow walkers here.
- Many walkers and rollators are foldable, so they’re relatively easy to store and travel with.
- One common drawback is that both types of devices may contribute to poor posture or aggravate back or wrist pain if not used properly. If this is a concern for you, an upright walker might be a reasonable choice to avoid these issues (more on upright walkers later).
- The vast majority of walkers and rollators should be placed in front of you, and you either have to push or lift them when moving forward.
When Do You Need a Walker?
If you’re unsteady when walking, lose your balance easily, and need firm support to avoid falling, you will probably need a walker and not a rollator.
Also, if you sometimes feel insecure and need some assistance, a walker can help you out in those situations. However, in order to be able to use a walker, you need to have a certain amount of strength in your arms and legs.
If you have a weak leg and that makes you unsteady in certain situations, or you have to be non-weight bearing after a surgery or injury and can’t place any weight on one of your legs, you’ll need a walker (or crutches).
However, if your legs are too weak to support your weight, or you feel that the physical exertion while using a walking frame is too demanding, you might need a wheelchair instead.
Although you won’t be able to move quickly with a walker, it gives you firm support, especially the non-wheeled models.
Keep in mind that using a walking frame will put a strain on your wrists and hands, so if you have severe arthritis or weakness in those areas, you might not be able to use the device properly.
A walker doesn’t have a seat, and that might be an issue if you have any medical condition that requires you to stop and have a rest frequently.
The outdoor use of a walking frame is limited, as it’s not really suitable for longer journeys.
Make sure you learn how to use a walker safely and adjust it according to your needs before you make it part of your everyday life to avoid falls and injuries. You can find some useful tips here.
FYI: A walker is not always necessary, sometimes a simple cane or a pair of underarm crutches is all you need to improve your balance and stability. In order to find the walking aid that best suits your needs, I highly recommend that you consult with an expert or your healthcare provider before purchasing.
When Do You Need a Rollator?
Compared to a walker, a rollator won’t give you the same level of steady support as it has four wheels that make the device less firm.
A rollator is usually a good choice if you can walk without too much difficulty but you need some extra support to improve your walking steadiness. It should not be used to support full body weight, however.
A rollator can help seniors to be more active and independent, as it gives them a sense of confidence and safety. If your health allows, a rollator walker can significantly improve your quality of life by enhancing mobility.
Also, it’s much easier to maneuver than a standard walker, especially if you use a three-wheeled model. It does not require lifting which makes the walks a smoother experience.
Rollators are suitable for longer outdoor journeys too. The storage compartment will help you carry some stuff with you, while the built-in seat will allow you to have a rest when you need it. If you plan to use your rolling walker mainly outdoors, consider choosing a model with larger wheels.
Note: If you can’t put your weight on one of your legs or if you’re recovering from surgery, you’ll probably need a walking frame instead of a rollator.
Don’t forget that you need to customize your rollator before you start using it. That includes adjusting the position of the hand brakes and setting the height of the device and the seat (if possible).
Things to Consider
When choosing a new mobility device, the underlying health condition will determine the types of walking aids that can be considered.
That’s why it’s so important to know the main reasons why you need a mobility aid.
- Have balance issues?
- Feeling unsteady while walking?
- Do you get tired easily?
- Non-weight bearing leg?
- Weak legs?
- Upper body strength
These are just a few things you need to consider before buying a new mobility device.
After determining the type of mobility device you need, the next step is to choose the exact model that’s the right fit for you. This is when you need to consider the dimensions and the features of the device.
Using a walker or a rollator incorrectly can lead to falls and injuries. If you’ve never used these types of mobility aids before, first you must learn how to use them properly. When in doubt, do not hesitate to consult with a professional.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is an upright walker?
Although an upright walker is very similar to a rollator (has four wheels, seat, hand brakes, etc.), when you use it, you need to position your hands and forearms completely differently.
An upright walker requires you to place your forearms on elevated armrests which helps improve your posture by preventing hunching over.
This type of walker can be especially useful if you suffer from back or wrist pain, or if you want to stand upright while using the device.
What is a bariatric walker?
A bariatric walker or rollator is basically a heavy-duty version of a standard walker or rollator. It’s built for larger people, so it’s wider and has a higher weight capacity than a regular walker.
Can a rollator walker be used as a wheelchair?
While you can sit on a rollator to have a rest, it’s not meant and designed to be used as a wheelchair. Transporting an individual on a standard rollator can lead to accidents and injuries. There are models, however, that can be converted to a wheelchair but that’s not common. So in most cases, you shouldn’t use your rollator as a wheelchair.
What is a knee walker?
A knee walker (or knee scooter) is an assistive device that’s designed to improve mobility after below-the-knee surgeries and injuries. In these cases, it can be an alternative to crutches and canes.
This type of walker features a knee pad on which the affected lower limb can rest during the recovery.
Photos: Wikimedia (KDPetersen, Hansimglueck70)