Preventing Falls on the First Day of Fall
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The Quarterstaff Revolution Redux

On yesterday's post about falling, Bruce Cooper noted that there are elders who could prevent falls by using a cane but are too vain or embarrassed to do so.

I believe Bruce is on to something and that reminded me of Dr. Bill Thomas, the well-known geriatrician who, a few years ago, wrote a regular column for this blog. (Nowadays, he has his own blog: ChangingAging.)

In 2008, in these pages, Bill called for a “quarterstaff revolution,” writing a compelling story about why such a device might be better for elders than a traditional cane.

In addition, maybe a quarterstaff is a “cooler” choice for some of us and if that keeps us upright, I'm all for it. See what you think.

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.

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 comes, I will 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, Clifford Rothband: Joy Unto Others


I'd use a quarterstaff as long as it came with the beard and the robe, and Medicaid paid for it.
Remember the TV series "Bat Masterson" with Gene Barry. Now, there was a guy with a cool cane.

If you spend any time at all on the Appalachain Trail, you'll note that hiking poles are universally used.As I told my Dad after his knee replacement surgery, "It's not a cane, it's a hiking pole!"

The regular appearance of a quarterstaff among elders could give a whole new slant to 'old and cantankerous'.

I have acquaintances who use hiking poles for walking and say it helps with upper body strengthening also.

What a great post, and I'm with you Ronni on this! I purchased an impressive quarterstaff, with a face like that of a Norse god carved into the top, at a local woodworkers show and sale of their wares last year. At the time I felt a little guilty, thinking it a silly, self-indulgent purchase, and one that was hard to justify financially, made only because I was mesmerized by its beauty. Now I find it may have a very practical use as well. Before I even got to the section of your post with the picture of Gandalf, I was thinking that if I got a pointed hat and a cloak (more unneeded purchases)I could adopt a new persona. Rather than a pointed hat, I think perhaps a hooded cloak, in forest moss green or deep heather purple, would work with this look.

I enjoyed your words about walking with Margaret Mead. Perhaps you're already ahead of me on this, but I wish you would work on memoir. You have such interesting experiences to share. I would love to hear more of them.

My gimpy legged husband uses a pair of trekking poles. He finds that he has better balance and more confidence when he can walk upright between these really cool tools.

I inherited a pair of wooden walking staffs lovingly made and polished by my father.I use one of them when I'm on the walking paths in parks and elsewhere as I cannot depend upon my weakening legs and eyes as much anymore.

While quarterstaffs are much more commanding of respect, the trekking pole has a comfortable hand grip and the advantage of being telescopic. It can be extended to a comfortable length or retracted for storage while seated rather than leaned against something or otherwise being in the way. They usually have a pointed end, but I'm sure they can be retrofitted with a rubber tip if not already available that way. Hope both these options take on popularity as everyone is safer when walking together confidently.

Great topic Ronni. Either option just looks more enabled than disabled.

I really enjoyed this post! I think I might opt for a quarter staff when and it I need some walking assistance. The thought of incorporating it into my personal style is so cool. Using a quarter staff might postpone having to use a walker, if I live that long. But a quarter staff isn't as useful indoors, right?

What a great idea. I just went to the REI website and picked out a trekking pole set, which is going on my Christmas wish list.

I sometimes use a staff that is a few inches longer than three feet. Maybe that would be a "short staff"? Works well with the thumb placed on top for walking, and the whole hand on top for resting.

Had a great wooden staff years ago when I hiked but now I'm on with the REI telescoping trekking pole. I agree with Cathy, hope you could write your memoir, I'd buy it.

I'd forgotten about these and am planning to get one! I've been using one of my mother's canes and am not too pleased with it. Now have to decide on which staff will suit me, have been looking online. Thank you for the wonderful reminder.

After an accident 5 years ago that forced my retirement, I spent the first two years hobbling about on a cane before I discovered a walking staff quite by accident. I had left my cane behind one day and so stopped at limb that I could use as a cane. As luck would have it ( or providence dictated ), I found a piece of white Texas ash about 5 1/2 feet long and planned to trim it to length when I got home. But when I used it, I found that it was more comfortable and functional and I ended up sanding it smooth, polishing it with waxing and using it now and forever.

Thanks so much for this post. I just ordered one online. I need to walk more, and a big stick will help.

Hiking/trekking poles are so common in Colorado that no one would think twice about an elder using one or two. I wouldn't have thought about it if you hadn't mentioned it.

Ronni, you walked with Margaret Mead? How cool is that? No wonder you miss your New York life.

Regarding the falling and cane issues, I use a cane only when I have to walk for a distance because it's too awkward around the house where walking is usually in short spurts from one piece of furniture to another. But falling has been my nemesis for years, so a couple of years ago, I decided that my problem was a lack of mindfulness and decided to think through virtually every step and turn-around as I did them. I count the stairs (too many in my house) as I go down because I used to do that thing of thinking I was at the bottom and stepping off into disaster. I haven't fallen since I became a mindfulness fanatic.

There are too many Megs on this site. Who knew that in our age group, so many women would be named a derivative of Margaret. I am the long-winded Meg from Sacramento, but henceforth I will sign myself as "EmmaJay" which is a nom de plume I have used on other sites and one not likely to be duplicated.

My sister uses a walking stick named Herb (Herb Cane - a San Francisco joke), but often uses ski poles which she thinks are superior. A modern equivalent of the quarter staff, I think.

I could have used a staff of some sort in trekking in Estes Park CO last week. Since I am already as old as Margaret Mead was when she died (76), I take it that I have permission to believe that I am old enough to obtain one???

I'm in when the time comes!

Ditto the above. I just bought a 53-incher with a strap on top. Great column!

When my dad was 78 he had a non-malignant brain tumor that affected his balance. He refused to use a cane, opting to use my mother as his personal human cane. His refusal to use an aid that could help him be independent completely changed how I perceived him as a person. Tools are good and whether it's a staff or trekking polls, when I need it, I will embrace it. because independence and walking are two of the most important things in my life.

Great idea. Wouldn't be bad for fending off beggars, thieves and rabid dogs, either!

My husband walked the Camino in Europe 7 times - 5-6 weeks at a time as well as a long temple walk in Japan. He used a staff- often a mop handle without the mop. He said it was more comfortable than an expensive cane. I have hiking poles that I use mainly to go up and down my icy driveway in the winter. I can convert them to ski-poles in the winter.

How jealous I am that you knew Margaret Mead! When I have to list 'people who I wish I could have known', she is always on my list...along with Thomas Jefferson! I still use hiking poles for hiking sometimes, but one of these days, if I need a 3 or 4-point base for stability in walking, I will probably put on the rubber tips and use them that way!

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