Lifts & Transfers 101: Everything You Need to Know To Keep You & Your Loved One Safe

A loss of mobility can be a challenge for both you and your loved one. When your loved one can no longer get in and out of bed with ease, or when they become dependent on a walker or wheelchair for mobility, it’s time to consider their options for lifts and transfers. While a loss of mobility may seem devastating at first, it doesn’t have to be. There are many options and devices available to help your loved one retain a sense of freedom in their home – even if that freedom looks different than before.

That being said lifts and transfers shouldn’t be taken lightly. They pose a serious risk of injury for yourself and your loved one if done incorrectly. In fact, many care settings consider lifts and transfers a high risk activity.

In this article we’ve assembled a list of the essential information you need to know about lifts and transfers as you embark on this new path with your aging loved one. 

A loss of mobility can be a challenge, but it doesn’t signify an end. 

Let’s start at the beginning…

What are lifts and transfers?

While lifts and transfers accomplish similar goals, they have some important distinctions:

  • Lift – this involves moving a person who cannot bear weight on at least one leg and is completely dependent on help to move. Lifts should always be done with a mechanical lifting device.
  • Transfer – a transfer, on the other hand, is a dynamic effort that involves helping move a person from one surface to another. This is only offered to people who can bear weight on at least one leg.

It is important to perform lifts and transfers properly. If done without using a proper device or technique, they can cause significant musculoskeletal injury. Injuries can include damage to muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves, joints, or intervertebral discs and can lead to pain, numbness, swelling or loss of mobility.

Why are lifts and transfers needed?

Lifts and transfers are needed for people who have limited mobility or physical impairment. They could be used to move a person from their bed to their wheelchair, from their room to the bathroom, into a car, or from any surface to another.

Lifts using a mechanical device must always be performed when a person cannot bear weight on at least one leg.

If a transfer is possible, there are several criteria that should be taken into account when determining what technique to use. While a full assessment should be done by a medical professional, these are some of the factors that may be taken into consideration:

  • How much help does your loved one need?
  • How much weight-bearing capacity does your loved one have?
  • Does your loved one have enough upper body strength to make a transfer possible?
  • Does your loved one understand instructions? Will they cooperate?
  • Are there special circumstances that need to be factored in, such as injuries, history of falls, medical equipment, etc.?

What types of lifts are available?

If a transfer isn’t an option for your loved one, there is no need to worry. Several types of lifts are available. The one you choose will be dependent on their needs and the advice you receive from a medical professional. Some of the common lift types include:

  • Sit-to-stand lift – This type of lift helps your loved one move from a seated to semi-standing position. The device can then be wheeled over to a chair or wheelchair and lowered down back to seating. 
  • Floor lift – This lift uses a sling that is positioned around your loved one and attached the arm of the lift. The arm then raises your loved one in the air and the device can be moved around to the desired place, before lowering your loved one back down.
  • Ceiling lift – This lift uses a sling and a track on the ceiling to raise your loved one, move them along the fixed path, and lower them back down. The benefit of this lift is that there are no large devices to store on the floor, since the pieces are attached to the ceiling. However, there is less flexibility for where you can move a person with this type of lift. 

What should I watch out for?

When performing a transfer or lift, there are several things you should be aware of:

  1. Don’t lift manually – Even if you think you can lift your loved one, don’t risk it. You can hurt yourself or the person you’re lifting. Consider the implications on their care if you injure yourself, and remember that there are many options for obtaining lifting devices.
  2. Stay well under your peak load – Everyone has a peak load. This is when your body performs a task above and beyond its capacity, such as lifting more than your body can handle. Working at your peak load can mean a one-time injury, or it can contribute to accumulative strain which can cause long-term injury.
  3. Be cautious of a transfer that could turn into a lift – Injuries can happen quickly if a transfer goes wrong and becomes a lift. This can happen in several situations. For instance, if your loved one loses their balance while you are assisting them, you may find yourself suddenly having to bear all of their weight. If you are concerned that a transfer may turn into a lift, it’s wise to consider using a mechanical lifting device from the get go. Proactive intervention and foresight might just save you and your loved one from injury.
  4. Communicate the procedure to all support staff – If your loved one gets regular support at home or in a care setting, it is important to inform all staff of their specific mobility needs, including providing detailed instructions on how to correctly transfer or lift your loved one. This is not only important for the occupational health and safety of the support staff, but also for the safety and comfort of your loved one.
  5. Pay attention to what you’re wearing – It is always advised to wear slip-resistant footwear and appropriate clothing when you’re assisting your loved one with a transfer or lift. Some items to watch out for include necklaces or bracelets, which can become hazardous if your loved one grabs for them in a fall.
  6. Set up an ergonomically-designed space – The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety offers some guidelines for designing an ergonomically-minded space that facilitates safe lifts and transfers. This includes:
    • Ensuring there is enough space to allow free movement.
    • A layout that allows for the use of proper body mechanics and transfer techniques.
    • Furniture that is high enough to allow for safe transfers. Adjustable furniture is best.
    • Non-slip materials or fasteners are used where items needs to be secure, such as on the bottoms of cushions or bed feet. 
    • Grab bars are located in the right places to help transfers in the bathroom.
    • Bed rails are light and can be operated with one hand.
    • Lighting is bright enough to accomplish tasks but not too bright to cause eye strain.
    • Bold colours or black and white markings are used where appropriate to help with visual perception.
    • Floors are not slippery, wet, or highly polished. 
  7. Get help when you need it – Caring for your aging loved one can be difficult to do alone when there are mobility limitations to consider. Hiring in-home care may bring you the stress relief and peace of mind you need to let your loved one age at home longer and with more comfort.


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