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Adjusting to life in a wheelchair

Older parents can find themselves in a wheelchair for all sorts of health reasons after which life can change significantly from the norm.

Katherine Pyne, creator of online disability shop designed2enable, found herself in this unexpected position at a younger age but her experience gives us an insight into the impact disability has on many people’s lives.

They say that life can change in a moment, which became a reality for me in my early thirties. On a beautiful sunny day in June, I came home from work and went out for a ride on my horse accompanied by my husband John on his mountain bike. It was something we loved doing together. This ride however resulted in me falling from my horse, incurring a spinal injury and becoming a permanent wheelchair user.

My stay in spinal rehab

Life from that moment on changed for us both. I spent 7 months in a spinal rehabilitation unit where we were told that it can take up to 5 years for fully adjust to a spinal injury.

Suddenly being thrust into the medical environment of a spinal unit was a bit of a shock. All the assistive aids were functional but clinical and grey and ugly to boot. Daily living with products like this was not something I looked forward to.

I have to say that I cannot fault the care I received during this time but after my stay at the unit my husband and I were very keen to adapt our home in a considered way to ensure that the wheelchair did not dominate the design.

Finding a new home

We had to sell our old home as it was completely unsuitable for me and finding a house that was suitable for me to live in after my accident was not easy. I think we were listed with 28 Estate Agents in our search.

I needed somewhere with flat access and garden, no tight corridor turns for the wheelchair, reasonable sized rooms, a kitchen and bathroom that were suitable for adapting and a drive that provided easy access parking for the house. A long list of requirements that needed to be met!

After many months of frustration, we found a bungalow being sold through probate that was ideal for adapting for my wheelchair. Our close friend Keith, an amazing architect, redesigned our whole house to suit my needs. He added an extension to the living room and kitchen, a new garage for easy access to the house, widened doorways and an en-suite bathroom (which has been a godsend).

John and I were still in shock and numb from the accident and so Keith took on the challenge of our home renovations as well as working on getting a disabled facilities grant from the council to help pay for the building adaptions. We would not have the house we have today with his help.

My en-suite has a sliding door saving space for easy manoeuvrability, a bath with a seat lifted by water pressure making transferring from my chair to the bath simple, a free standing sink to fit my chair beneath and grab rails beside the toilet.

Getting used to change

While these adaptations have made all the difference to my life in a wheelchair there are still times when I get frustrated. Everything takes twice as long. Getting up, bathed and dressed can take me an hour whereas before I would be showered and dressed in half the time.

Washing the floor, trying to make a bed or tidying a room all take twice the time that they did before. I also live with chronic pain caused by nerve damage which slows me down and affects my energy levels.

I think that the hardest things I have had to learn are patience (which was not one of my strong points to begin with) and that many things in my life are now a compromise.

Spontaneous isn’t part of my vocabulary any more. Everything has to be planned and researched – access and facilities for daytrips and holidays can make the difference between a good or bad outing. My disability often dictates our choice of holiday which is hard to accept but I try to focus on what I can do rather than what I can’t.

When shopping I often need to wait in an aisle to catch some poor unsuspecting shopper to reach something for me and filling up the car with petrol means me frantically waving my Blue Badge or honking the horn at a cashier for assistance. Every situation now has its challenges.

New beginnings

Since my accident, we have had a daughter who is now a teenager. When she was born I searched for products to assist me through this fun and challenging time but everything I found looked so awful I decided I didn’t want to use any of it. I coped in a very stubborn and independent way. I found my own way round problems with a bit of ingenuity!

Through it all my family and friends have been a wonderful support system. It has been an education for them too just as much as me. After my accident I discovered who my real friends were. Some simply couldn’t cope and I never saw them again but other friends on the periphery came through for my husband and I in so many ways.

I have since made some wonderful friends locally who treat me the same as everyone else which is great. I have tried not to dwell on what has happened and instead look forward and get on with life which not only helps me but I think it has helped those around me to move on as well.

Looking to the future

I know from personal experience that you’re more likely to use assistive aids if you’re not embarrassed of them, otherwise you end up struggling on, determined to cope without them, putting your safety and independence at risk.

After experiencing the ugly, functional end of the spectrum my husband and I spent a long time researching products that didn’t compromise style for practicality in order to provide solutions for others who’ve faced a similar situation to me.

Watching my parents get older I’ve seen them slow down, have the odd health scare or set back yet they still lead independent lives unaided by John and I. I know there may come a time when they’ll need extra assistance whether it be a bathroom grab rail, walking stick or specially designed gardening tool. I want to be able to offer my parents choices that will enhance their lives should they need them.

Katherine and her husband launched designed2enable in 2013 offering beautifully designed assistive products ranging from stylish daily living to mobility aids. 

Discover more

Find out more about help for those living with disability in our Directory.

You can also check Handichelp for tips on the best motorized wheelchairs on the market.

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