By Kristin Varela on March 12, 2013
Like many of you, I transport my father regularly to and from medical treatments while also managing my usual family-hauling tasks. I've often talked about the importance of finding the proper vehicle for those in the "sandwich generation" caring for both aging parents and young children. Now I'm smack dab in the middle of that sandwich. However, I'm driving a small sedan, which is all of the sudden completely inadequate for both sides of the bread.
Medical conditions affect mobility, and there are a few important features to keep in mind when searching for a vehicle to use when transporting friends or family to the doctor.
Seat Height: To make entry and exit as easy as possible, seat height is important. Sedans and small cars with very low seats (like my Mercedes-Benz C-Class) require a lot of leg and arm strength to push up and out of. Large SUVs with high seats like my father's Yukon require strength, balance and flexibility to step up onto the running board and then into the seat. Both force the helper into the difficult position of physically having to heft the passenger, risking injury and creating a fall risk if the passenger is unstable.
Many crossovers and minivans seem to fall right in the middle. According to Raj Metha, Buick Enclave engineer, there is a seat height "sweet spot" for those with limited mobility. It’s measured from the ground to the hip point, and is typically between 27.5 and 30 inches. The Buick Enclave’s seats fit perfectly in this zone, measuring around 30 inches from the ground to the top of the bottom cushion.
Width from Seat to Frame: A vehicle with wider seats (pushed out closer to the vehicle's frame) requires less of a stretch to reach the seat with a comfortable and natural sitting motion.
Door Opening: Once comfortably seated, your passenger will have to swing his or her legs into the vehicle, hopefully without his or her knees banging the doorjamb. A vehicle with a wide door opening, like the Toyota Venza with its 40 ¾-inch-wide front door opening, requires less knee bend to get the legs in. A power-sliding seat is also helpful to quickly create extra legroom.
Seat Cushion: A heavily bolstered seat cushion could make it difficult for your passenger to get over the "hump" on the edge of the seat. Vehicles with flatter seat cushions, like the Honda Crosstour, should make it easier; however, there's a line between function and comfort that will vary on an individual basis.
Grab Handles: Large, stable and easy-to-grab handles are a huge help in allowing your passenger to get in and out of the car as independently as possible.
Cargo Space: Many people with limited mobility use walkers or wheelchairs. You — the kind soul who has volunteered to drive them — will have to heft those devices in and out of your car, so you need a cargo space large enough to hold them. Wheelchairs are often quite heavy, so a crossover's low and flat load floor makes this process easier.
Aftermarket Solutions: There are plenty of aftermarket solutions to help make life on the go with a limited-mobility passenger just a little easier. Buick offers an "assist step," a 6-inch oval-shaped step for a boost getting into the Enclave. Many companies also make aftermarket swivel seats that start around $2,500.
To help determine which features will best accommodate your family member's specific requirements, talk to his or her doctor or physical therapist. The medical professionals may also be able to help you obtain a handicapped tag to make getting in and out of the appointments just a little less painful.
If you have personal experience transporting someone with limited mobility, share your tips and advice in the comments section below to help others in your shoes — or tires.
Senior Family Editor Kristin Varela blends work and family life by driving her three tween-teen girls every which way in test cars. Email Kristin