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Lift chairs go mainstream, just in time for the boomers

Bernice Garchik's favorite place to settle in with a book or TV show is the cushy chenille armchair in her den, designed with a built-in motorized lift.

"I love it," says Garchik, 77, who needs a little help getting up because of arthritis in her back. To demonstrate, she pushes a button on a remote control, and the seat and back gently rise to nudge her into a standing position. "It's been a lifesaver."

Garchik has joined the ranks of thousands of older or disabled Americans who have added a lift chair to their assortment of anti-aging gadgets. Following close behind is an army of baby boomers, the leading edge of which turns 60 this year, who will be in the market for this stuff sooner than they may think. This tide of discriminating consumers is changing the design of walking sticks, grab bars, can openers and other products intended to extend mobility, comfort and independence. And it is changing the look of the lowly lift chair.

Lift chairs -- or, as the butt of jokes, eject-o-chairs -- have been around for more than 20 years. Early on, they were typically clunky, institutional-looking behemoths often covered in low-grade vinyl. But in the past 10 years sales have doubled, according to industry sources, to a total of more than 200,000 a year, as the chair has morphed into a more stylish mode with new technology that provides a smooth ride. Company executives are targeting the designs to appeal to the 82 million Americans over age 50, with sleeker models available in buttery leather, textured microfiber or custom-order fabrics. Companies such as Flexsteel (www.flexsteel.com) have retooled some of their best-selling recliners to fit the lift mechanism, raised the height of the arms and the legs, and added a firmer back.

Lift chairs, priced $550 to $1,500, now are found not only at medical supply stores but also at furniture retailers, ergonomic furniture stores and online.

Pride Mobility Products (www.pridemobility.com) is a major manufacturer of lift chairs and power scooters sold primarily through medical equipment dealers. The Pennsylvania company now sells 22 models of lift chairs, some with heaters and massagers. Chairs with computer ports, phone jacks and refrigerators built into the arms are on the drawing board, according to Pride Mobility's national sales manager, Cy Corgan.

"Today's population is different from the previous generation," says Dan Meuser, president of Pride Mobility, which has made lift chairs for Frank Sinatra and Annette Funicello (who has multiple sclerosis. "The past generation would do without. The post-World War II generation, they don't want to do without. They want life enhancement and they want to stay independent."

Elinor Ginzler, director for livable communities for AARP, the 36 million-member organization for people over 50, sees a convergence of trends. "There is no question that life span is increasing and people are living longer. And they are living longer with chronic conditions. The business community is responding," she said.

Adding to that, according to AARP surveys, 85 percent of the 50-plus population wants to stay in their own homes as long as possible.

When lift chairs became widely available in the 1980s, they were sold primarily at medical supply stores, and the purchase often was covered by Medicare or health insurance. But during the 1990s, legislation regulating lift-chair reimbursement changed. Today, sometimes only the cost of the lift mechanism and motor (about $300 to $400) is covered by insurance if a chair is prescribed by a physician for such specific conditions as hip or knee replacement, neuromuscular disease or severe arthritis. Medicare's criteria for coverage are very specific.

Some baby boomers are purchasing the chairs as gifts for their parents, or adding them to their own homes for elderly relative visits.

Decorators increasingly are being called on to install such mobility-enhancing products, says Washington designer Skip Sroka, who decorated the den in Garchik's home in suburban Potomac, Md. Sroka's makeover, a gift from Garchik's children, outfitted the mustard yellow den with two motorized Motioncraft power recliners in rust-colored chenille.

"Skip tried to talk me into a lift chair, but I said, 'I'm not old enough.' " Garchik recalls. "Suddenly, a few months later, I was old enough." She moved one of the rust recliners into her bedroom. Her daughter took her to Joanne's Bed & Back (www.backfriendly.com) and Garchik spent $1,200 on the beige chair made by Golden Technologies that would aid her mobility as well as complement her decor.

La-Z-Boy (www.la-z-boy.com), a company famed for its recliners, also has an expanding line of lift chairs. Last year, the firm responded to consumer requests by introducing the Summit series for larger customers, featuring higher backs and deeper, wider seats reinforced to hold more weight. One of the most popular lift models, the Grand Canyon, will hold a person weighing up to 500 pounds.

"We see this as a growing category not only because of the aging of the baby boomer but also because people are just getting bigger," says Penny Eudy, upholstery product manager for La-Z-Boy. "This creates even more problems when they get older."

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