Wash, Rinse, Spin

Cleaning Your Cover and Other Tips to Prolong the Life of Your Wheelchair Cushion

BubblesSize-wise, your seat cushion is one small part of your entire mobility system. But a lot of thought, research and testing have gone into that squarish, black-covered product you sit on.

Depending on their specific designs and materials, seat cushions are built to help keep your skin healthy, provide good posture and positioning (so you can effectively reach your wheels or your joystick, for example), and give you stability in your chair. Cushions and cushion covers can also help keep skin dry and at a healthy temperature, while also absorbing and minimizing those annoying little jolts or vibrations from the ground that you feel as you wheel.

Cushions are made of many different materials: air cells, foams of different densities and thicknesses, gel, honeycomb or a combination. But they’re all designed to keep you comfortable and support you. And one of the best ways to get the most from your wheelchair seat cushion is to take good care of it.

Tricia Garven is a physical therapist who works at The ROHO Group, a manufacturer of wheelchair cushions for consumers with many different medical conditions. She offers the following tips on caring for your cushion.

Cleanliness counts. Make a “cleaning schedule” for your cushion and cushion cover. How often a cushion and cover need to be cleaned depends on who’s using them, what they’re doing while in the chair and where the chair is going.

True or False?

Using a pillowcase or towel on top of a wheelchair seat cushion keeps a cushion cleaner and helps it to work better for a longer time.

Tricia Garven, physical therapist, says: False!

“Having as few layers between the skin and product is best. The clothing that the client is wearing and any additional layers—diapers, towels, pillow cases—are just creating tension that’s not going to let you sink into (the cushion) as much as you’re supposed to.”

For instance, if the cushion user is a young child, Garven says, “he’s likely spilling apple juice on his cushion cover every week. That cushion cover needs to be cleaned once a week at least.”

If the wheelchair user has difficulties with incontinence and has “accidents” while in the chair, the cover should be washed frequently and the cushion itself checked to see if it’s soiled.

While you’re washing the cover, Garven suggests peeking at the cushion itself, too.

“If it’s dirty and it’s a product that can be wiped down and cleaned, do it,” she says, adding that grit, dust from the air, hair and skin cells are “going to create opportunities for wear.”

If you wash the cushion cover frequently and are losing too much chair time while waiting for the cover to dry, consider buying a second cover so you’ll always have one ready to roll. But don’t be tempted to just grab a cover from an old cushion. Each cover is specifically made to be used with only one model of cushion, Garven says.

“It’s very important to use the proper cover per cushion because they’re all specially designed with certain stretchiness in certain places, etc., to allow the cushion to work most efficiently,” she explains. “The cleaner you keep anything, the longer it’s going to last—especially covers.”

Check for wear, too. While you’re checking to see if your cushion needs cleaning, check also for signs of wear and tear. Look for rips or tears in your cushion cover’s fabric. Check the seams for rips, and make sure the zippers are working properly. Some covers include foam inserts or other similar built-in components—if yours does, make sure those inserts are all still in the right places.

“The cushion cover is probably going to wear out before the cushion does,” Garven says.

As for the cushion: In foam, check for changes in color that can happen as foam gets older. Does the foam look or stay compressed even when no one is sitting on the cushion? Does air or gel seem to be leaking?

When the wheelchair user sits on the cushion, does the cushion still hold them up? Or does the user sink all the way through the cushion so it appears that he or she is sitting practically on the wheelchair seat itself? Therapists refer to that as “bottoming out,” and it can happen with cushions made of any material—foam, air, gel, honeycomb or a combination of materials.

If you suspect any of these problems, check with the provider who supplied the cushion or your occupational or physical therapist to see if you need new equipment. Sometimes the fix is as easy as pumping more air into certain parts of the cushion or kneading the gel so it’s more evenly dispersed.

Make sure the cushion is right side up—and facing front. Unlike sofa cushions, which are supposed to be rotated so they all wear evenly, wheelchair cushions need to be placed in a certain position on the wheelchair.

Nearly all wheelchair seat cushions have a specific top, bottom, front and back.

“If the cushion has contours and leg troughs, it’s important to know it works only in a certain direction,” Garven says.

To be sure you’re replacing the cushion correctly after you clean it or its cover, look for directional instructions printed on the cushion or cushion tags.

Where does the zipper go? Most cushion covers also have specific tops and bottoms, fronts and backs. Check the tags out to make sure the cushion cover is facing in the correct direction as you put it back onto the cushion.

Take advantage of resources. When you get your new cushion or cushion cover, ask for a customer service number you can call if you have questions about properly using and caring for your cushion. The manufacturer of the cushion should also be able to answer your questions. Don’t hesitate to call if you have questions about how the cushion or cover is supposed to work or how to take care of them. After all, both the manufacturer and the provider want you to be a happy customer!

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.