This Week in Elder News: 21 June 2008
Surviving Hard Times

Quarterstaff Revolution

category_bug_geriatrician.gif [EDITORIAL NOTE: The TGB Geriatrician is a semi-monthly column written by Dr. Bill Thomas (bio) for Time Goes By to give us the information we need to help us navigate the health issues of aging. Dr. Thomas also writes his own blog at Changing Aging.]

In 1992, The New York Times took a look at the research AARP was doing on walking canes:

”Many people who use canes injure themselves because they don't do the necessary research before buying one. That is an early conclusion of a continuing study on canes sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons.

“According to Dr. Margaret Wylde, vice president of the Institute for Technology Development in Oxford, Miss., which is conducting the study, the conclusion is based on a review of recent medical and rehabilitation literature and on more than 1,000 letters solicited from A.A.R.P. members who are regular cane users.

“Some of the most serious damage, Dr. Wylde said, can result from the cane's grip. Carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful ailment, can result from any repetitive motion like typing or using a cane.”

There are two reasons people use walking canes.

  1. To improve balance by providing a third contact point with the ground
  2. To redistribute weight away from an injured or arthritic lower limb

As a physician, I have never really liked walking canes. Here is one patient's experience:

”I noticed several problems within the first five minutes. My triceps were quickly fatigued as they worked to hold my weight up.

“As a result, my scapula elevated to relieve the triceps, putting strain on my rotator cuff. This "shrugging" effect could be somewhat offset by lowering the height of the handle below my waist, which served to extend the arm and reduce the amount of elevation in the shoulder.

“The handle of the cane was designed in such a way that the grip increased in broadness from the neck of the handle to the end, providing a wider, flatter surface where the palm would rest.

“Unfortunately, the result was not a more comfortable feel, but rather a terrible dorsiflexion combined with ulnar deviation in the wrist and a bruised hamate bone where the weight was concentrated. I felt tweaks of pain all day long in my wrist and shoulder which continued into the night, long after I had ended my experiment.

“Aside from design problems, there were several functional problems as well. For instance, each step was accompanied by a jarring vibration which was transferred up the entire length of the arm every time the rubber cane tip struck the concrete. The swing of the cane often had to be initiated by a flick of the wrist, resulting in a constant repetitive oscillation between ulnar and radial deviations.

“Furthermore, adjusting the cane to the correct height was difficult due to a simultaneous push of a button and pull of the shaft requiring relatively dexterous fingers; arthritic hands would be pitifully ineffective.”

PREDICTION! Elders of today and tomorrow are going to give up on the cane, abandoning it in favor of the quarterstaff.


"Gandalf the Grey carried about with him a spike brown staff which served partly as an agency of his power, as can be seen when he faced the Balrog in Moria. Besides functioning as a useful walking stick, it was also thought to symbolize what he was and his position in the Istari."

There are three reasons I think elders can and will retire the old-time walking cane and embrace the quarterstaff:

  1. The cane places the greatest strain on the smallest muscles and joints (the wrist and forearm). Repetitive use can easily lead to wrist and forearm injury.
  2. The quarterstaff transfers the weight into the shoulder girdle itself. The shoulder joint and its surrounding muscles are much better prepared to handle the load than are the wrist and forearm.
  3. Imagine a scene: an older woman using a bent-top walking cane crosses a building lobby, trying to reach the elevator before the doors roll closed. Now imagine the same scene with the older woman striding across the lobby with the aid of a seven-foot, oak quarterstaff. People hold the door open not because of chivalry, not out of a desire to help little old ladies, but rather because she just looks so damned cool.

Elders are obligated to give younger people clues about how deep and mysterious elderhood can be.

I would like any elders or elders-to-be who read this post to go out and get hold of a walking staff (it does not matter if you NEED one). Go out in public with it and follow your normal routine and have somebody take a picture of you using it. Send the photo to Ronni.

I'll close my appeal with a quote from one of America's greatest walkers...

"Although the vast majority of walkers never even think of using a walking staff, I unhesitatingly include it among the foundations of the house that travels on my back. I still take my staff along almost as automatically as I take my pack. It is a third leg to me - and much more besides.

“On smooth surfaces, the staff helps maintain an easy rhythm to my walking and gives me something to lean on when I stop to stand and stare. Over rough going of any kind, from tussocky grass to pockety rock, and also in a high wind, it converts me when I am heavily laded from an insecure biped to a confident triped…

“It may well be, too, that the staff also gives me a false but subconsciously comforting feeling that I am not after all completely defenseless against attack by such enemies as snakes, bears and men."

- Colin Fletcher, The Complete Walker III, 1984 (page 78)

[AFTERWORD from Ronni: For about the last six or seven years of her life, until she died in 1978, Margaret Mead and I lived across the street from one another in Greenwich Village. I didn't get to spend as much time with her as I would have liked, but we sometimes walked several blocks together on our errands around the neighborhood.

She always used a quarterstaff, although I didn't know it was called that. She looked magnificent and powerful striding down the block, especially in the colder months when she wore a full-length cape. I've known since then that when the time came, I would use a staff and not a cane. Now, with Dr. Thomas's permission for us to do so even if we don't require one yet and the Colin Fletcher quote, I may start sooner.]

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ronni Prior explains why she left the Country Life.]

EDITORIAL NOTE: You can subscribe to The TGB Geriatrician column by email by clicking here. Subscribe to the daily Time Goes By blog by email or RSS in the upper right corner of this page.


Thank you for arguing the point of using alternatives to the walking cane. My mother has been using one for the last two years and has developed other problems, mentioned here, that could well have arisen from using the cane. She is now using one of those wheel stroller with brakes and a place to sit if she is standing too long and needs some weight off her feet.

In Germany and Sweden, I've noticed elders using nordic walking sticks. A more balanced movement, and you can use your shoulders and arms to support the walking movement. What do you think, would nordic walking poles also be a possible alternative?

It's always been a thought of mine; how ultra cool I would look while using a staff. Thanks for giving me permission. Now I just need to find the right one...

I found this site with more than 150 various styles of walking and hiking sticks.

I may be able to use this advice for myself one day, but for now - I'm thinking of my mom. She's using a cane, although I haven't seen her use it since she started using it after the last time I saw her. (We live far apart.) I hope she'll visit us here in Sweden later this summer and then I can get a better feel for her cane use.

Meanwhile, I'd be delighted to go out and get a staff. Now if I can just figure out where to get one here in the Old Country... :)

Reading this brought back some pleasant memories. For nearly 20 years I lived in Colorado and one of the first things I picked up was what I called a walking staff (and you called a quarter staff). It certainly made hiking in the mountains easier. Now I wonder where I put it.

Fortunately we do not yet need assistance walking. But we've had two shepherd's crooks for a long time. We use them mainly when out in what we politely call our woods; in truth this is more of a jungle.
They make it easier to walk on uneven ground; the crooks help pull branches aside on the trails, and they offer some sense of security should we need a defensive weapon should we accidentally provoke some critter.

I agree too that staffs of one sort of another look very cool. Why give up looking cool as we age?

If and when we find that we need help for more than just a walk in the woods, we will be ready. Whether we will look cool is anybody's guess!

I shall join the Quarterstaff Revolution. I couldn't find one on eBay so I can have my husband make one or try the great site you provided us. I love the mental picture you gave of Margaret Mead striding along with one and I believe my mother would have looked so cool with one. I think she may have lived longer if she had owned a quarterstaff.

Using a cane indicates a disability and makes you feel vulnerable. A staff would be 'way cool', but at the prices I will have to keep looking like the old lady that I am.

I do not suffer any of the pain mentioned in the patient's article (he/she was most certainly a doctor)but then I only use my cane to walk to the mail box once or twice a day. However, I do think I would be less apt to watch my feet if I used a staff and would, therefore, have better balance.

I'm going to have mr. kenju read this. He has not complained about his cane (yet) but he does complain of shoulder and arm pain, particularly on the side he holds the cane with. A staff might be just the thing.

Who knew I already have the tools for cool?! I've had a staff for decades.
I decided to 'climb a mountain' on the first New Year's Day after I came to this region, and picked up a great stick when I came to an area of loose rock and felt the need of a third leg.

I haven't found a picture of me using it, yet, but I'll post a picture of the stick on my site.

I didn't know it had a name either, other than staff. Now, I'm smarter AND cool. :)

What a wonderful idea. Why wait until we NEED a walking aid. If all of us elders took up the quarter staff we would be a force to be reckoned with.

My one concern is: will the airlines call my quarter staff a weapon and force me to check it or discard it? If so, I object on principle.

Now I'll go looking for a quarter staff or shepherd's crook.

I haven't bought a walking stick for hiking but my daughter in her 30s bought one and loved it. I have had reluctance mainly because I already carry a camera and wasn't sure I wanted to carry something else in those places I didn't need the balance help. There are many places that sell them in the Tucson area including Saguaro National Monument and some are really beautiful with polished wood. I also see a lot of hikers using collapsible walking sticks which would be handy for those who don't need to use something in say a grocery store.

Ah ha!

Because we love to hike in the mountains of Big Bend, we discovered the value of a staff long ago.

My favorite one is handmade from the little village of Boquillas del Carmen - just across the Rio Bravo Del Norte in the Big Bend National Park. (Sadly, today it is illegal to cross over to this little quaint village as well as purchase anything from its citizens. Typical when Washington tries to rule Texas.)

My walking stick is made from the flowering stalk of the sotol, and decorated with a handpainting of red flowers.

Thanks to Ronni, I now have a wonderful image of Margaret Meade as a female version of Moses - perfect!

I appreciate this post and am forwarding it to my husband and daughter who both use canes. I may have to start due to arthritis in my knee.
We have walking sticks we picked up in the desert Southwest. In many National Parks and National Monuments you can buy little metal shields to attach to your quarterstaff. We first saw them at Voyagers National Park and now we have several on our walking sticks.

We have seen some magnificent quarterstaffs at Art Fairs.

I found these Walking Sticks on a Google search: looks/sounds like that kind of walking sticks that Cow Town Patty is talking about.

I used a collapsible cane for balance on steps that didn't have railings when I was in Japan last fall. I hated it--felt like an invalid when I used it. I've been thinking about getting a walking stick for when I return next fall. Thanks for the post; it reinforced my idea. Now I just have to find the right one.

And you must go to this site of Ms. Sticks....and watch this wonderful artist's "Creative Process" of making her walking sticks. This is what a Walking Stick is all about!


Just to throw a little humor into this discussion I want to let you know that Margaret Mead probably blended right into the crowd in Greenwich Village, drifting down the street, in her long cape and huge quarterstaff, trailing the scent of Rosemary.

Now put me in the same cape and quarterstaff and send me into my small town Waffle House and see the reaction that I would cause.

You'd hear 30 people all at once calling,"Check,please."

That's it! If the time comes and I require an aid to walking, I'm getting a quarterstaff!

I do not have a photo of myself when I was using a quarterstaff while walking across Spain but want to note it was very helpful at the time. I like the idea of using one again if needed when I get older. One thing I will point out, when you do get one you must try before you buy. I looked at a few sticks before I found the one that was right for me. The thickness, weight, and length of the stick all make a difference in how comfortable the stick is to use.

Seeing the picture of Marian with her staff reminded me that actually I do have one. I found it last summer in the creek with one end gnawed off by a beaver. My husband took my picture with it in the creek because I felt, as your blog here indicated, that it was powerful. I had to go outside and find it to be sure I still had it. If you really do want photos of us with our staffs, I'd be happy to mail you the picture of this one and me. I need to do some oiling of mine to make it smoother to handle.

Cool. I just stubbed and sprained (maybe fractured) my little toe this morning. Now I gotta find a quarter staff....

My husband used his walking stick today and I could see an immediate improvement in his walking. With the cane he would pick it up and put it down with each step. With the walking stick he would take 2 to 3 steps before moving the walking stick. His walking is smoother an faster.

I got my sotol walking stick during a hike to an abandoned mine in southern New Mexico. I picked it up in the desert and did the sanding and sealing myself.

I love this idea and am going to do it when I need to. Thanks so much for this information!

"Speak softly and carry a BIG STICK!" - Teddy Roosevelt, 1903
(emphasis mine)


Those staffs you found are close, but here is a link to the national parks site for Big Bend.

Well, that didn't work.

Try one more time:

This link

Dear Ronni,
Thank you so much for enabling us to be "cool" using walking aids. I would like your opinion on my problem. I live in a small town where I can walk to the stores, library, church etc. so I bought a wire pushcart with good swivel wheels and it is excellent to bring home groceries or books. I stride out just like when I walked for miles with my babies in their pram. The problem is some of my grandchildren are horrified and refuse to be seen with me. My neihbor (age 78) said she'd rather be dead than use an "old lady"shopping cart. Am I so uncool?

I think canes just need new marketing to make them seem cool. Perhaps new designs, too. I bet if Apple made a cane...

When I was recovering from knee surgery my cane was called my "pimp stick".

My husband and I hike a lot and we use hiking poles. I used to have pain between my shoulders when I hiked. When I use hiking poles I have no pain and I can enjoy the view more because I have improved balance. You can see many of our hiking group using hiking poles here.

And you can see Duke with his here.

I used to think there were kind of silly, but now I am sold.

I just bought a wonderful quarterstaff from Swords of Honor, Inc.. Check out
They have both 4ft. and 6ft. for sale. I'm just thrilled.
Thanks for the article.

walking canes will have injuries if it isn't picked considering the size and other factors but the canes can be a handy craft for an elderly person or someone who is a victim of diseases like osteoporosis, arthritis who end up needing assistance to walk.

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