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Innovative Assistive Walking Devices Under Development

August 10, 2000
An assistive walking device, at the trial stage, with electronically powered casts. (Toyo University)

The Japanese population is aging at a pace unrivaled anywhere else in the world, and the number of elderly people who have trouble walking due to weakened leg muscles or other problems is increasing as a result. Reflecting this trend, moves to develop assistive walking devices for the elderly have been gaining speed. At the same time, a growing number of manufacturers are undertaking projects to research and develop more sophisticated assistive walking devices for people with physical handicaps.

Setting the Pace
Assistive mobility devices for the elderly have been around for some time, but most, like conventional walkers that must be pushed by the user, are relatively simple in construction. By contrast, the devices now under development have fairly high-tech capabilities.

Recently, the Akita Prefectural Industrial Technology Center unveiled a motorized walker targeted at people who need a cane to get around. The device resembles a pushcart, with wheels and a handhold bar. Users simply pull a lever on the bar, and the walker begins moving forward slowly. The speed can be set between 0 and 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) an hour--the average pace at which elderly people walk. Made for use both in the home and outside, the walker runs two and a half hours on a single recharge. The idea of a motorized walker that permits adjustments to the speed represents a major advance over conventional models. Currently, plans are underway to make the device more practicable by adding safety features to prevent collisions with objects, stop it from rolling into the street, and guard against other mishaps.

The proportion of Japan's population that is 65 years old or older is expected to rise from the present 16.7% (as of October 1999) to 25.2% in 2015, making Japan the top-ranking country worldwide. In no other nation is the population graying so rapidly. Projections of a surge in the number of elderly are behind the move to develop high-tech assistive walking devices for this group, such as the one designed by the Akita Prefectural Industrial Technology Center.

Walking on One's Own
Meanwhile, efforts to develop assistive devices for the physically handicapped are also flourishing. Toyo University recently unveiled one such trial product: a set of electronically powered casts that enable people who are paralyzed from the waist down to walk. Users put on the casts and walk with a set of crutches that also control the casts.

When a button on the crutches is pressed, the casts expand and contract, causing the knees to bend and making it possible to sit down, stand up, and, of course, walk about.

Hitachi is also developing an assistive walking device for people who have difficulty walking. Measuring 70 centimeters (27.6 inches) wide, 82 centimeters (32.3 inches) deep, and up to 150 centimeters (59.1 inches) tall, this motorized walker has a tray attached to the upper half of its frame. Users rest their forearms on the tray and can control the direction in which the walker moves simply by shifting their weight to the right or left. Hitachi plans to market this product in 2001.

The idea behind these new devices for the disabled is to let users get around on their feet without depending on others for help. In this respect, they mark a major departure from wheelchairs. Though production is just a matter of time, the problem of price remains. For the time being, they will invariably cost considerably more than wheelchairs. As a result, some people are now calling for their inclusion in the list of products covered by Long-Term Care Insurance.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.