Home & Garden

Tips for making your staircase safer, when you still need to use one

Sometimes single-floor living just isn't a possibility

Man climbs stairs Credit: Getty Images / Wavebreakmedia

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More and more, Americans are overwhelmingly choosing to age in place. And, while as much as 75% of seniors have expressed the desire to remain in their homes and their communities, aging in place comes with a slew of concerns, not the least of which are safety issues.

Undoubtedly, aging in place can be precarious. As the years tick by, chronic pain, decreased flexibility, impaired mobility, and poor vision make it difficult for seniors to navigate the homes they know and love. Chief among the concerns for so many are navigating the house staircase and reducing the risk of falls. As it turns out, research shows unequivocally that these fears are not unfounded.

Falls are the reason behind more hospital admissions and deaths than any other type of trauma, and they're the leading cause of injury in adults aged 65 and older. Moreover, the CDC estimates that each year approximately 3 million people are admitted to hospital emergency rooms as a result of a fall.

Falls can be devastating and life-changing, and for most seniors, that fact is not lost on them. Of the folks choosing to age in place, as much as 36% of them acknowledge that their homes will need major renovations in order to do so.

When it comes to making your home safe for yourself as you age, the list of possibilities is long. If the floorplan of your home permits (i.e., a bedroom and bathroom on the main level), you may consider moving to the main floor, significantly reducing your stair time by taking it out of the equation altogether.

But if you can move to single-floor living, the first place to focus on taking safety measures is your staircase As a homeowner, here is what you can do to reduce the risk of accidents, whether a full staircase remodel is in the plans, or not.

Keep the path clear

Perhaps the easiest thing you can do to make a stairway safer is to keep it free of clutter. Stairs, particularly landings, tend to be a catchall for mail, laundry baskets, and more. Be sure to store items “in transit” away from the stairs, and remove any decorative elements that pose a risk of trips and falls.

Add a pause point

pause point
Credit: Getty Images / PC Photography

When your home has a lot of stairs, you can create a pause point—simply a bench or seat—on a landing so you can take a rest when needed.

Megan Dufresne, Principal Designer at MC Design notes that a resting point along a staircase can give seniors a much-needed respite on their way up or down.

“In stairways that have a landing or two, adding a built-in bench or other seating can provide an opportunity to pause and take a short break before continuing on,” she says “Whether it’s to catch their breath or regain balance, this pause can make all the difference.”

Box in open tread stairs or adjust the rise

Open tread (or floating) stairs can easily trick the eye, making it a hazard for anyone, no matter their age or ability. While replacing the stairs may be cost-prohibitive or impractical, do consider closing up the open spaces if your stairs are designed with an open tread.

If your budget allows, you may consider a staircase remodel and adjust the rise of each step.

Lowering the rise eliminates the need to step as high while navigating the stairs; this can be particularly important for those with impaired mobility and poor balance.

Install handrails

While most staircases have at least one graspable handrail that’s primarily decorative, seniors often need some additional support. To this end, the CDC suggests installing a second handrail.

Dufresne shares, “Including a second handrail to ensure proper support from both sides of the stairway can make going up and down the stairs much easier. This relatively easy modification is a cost-effective addition that can make a big difference.”

If you choose to add a second handrail, remember that building codes define a graspable handrail as one that’s round in shape with a diameter of 1.25 to 2 inches.

Additionally, handrails should only be secured into the studs of the wall and run the entire length of the staircase. Last but not least, handrails should “return to the wall” on both ends to prevent anything from catching.

Remove carpet runners

stair treads
Credit: Getty Images / kate_sept2004

Always remove loose runners on any staircase, but you can install non-slip carpeting that is tightly stretched.

While carpet runners certainly add a lot to your décor, they can be incredibly dangerous on stairways. Loose runners are a known trip hazard, and they are particularly dicey for those who have difficulty with balance or those who use a cane.

To make a stairway safer, replace old and worn stair carpeting and runners with non-slip carpeting. More importantly, to avoid issues down the line, be sure to have it installed by a qualified carpet fitter. Not only should carpets be properly stretched to prevent sagging and bunching, but they should also be tightly stretched against the nosing of each step.

Add treads or non-slip strips

As a cost-efficient alternative to carpet installation on hardwood stairways, you can use rubber mats or non-slip stair treads to make a stairway safer. In this case, be sure to use treads or mats with a large surface area. This ups the ante for safety, allowing for the person’s whole foot to make contact with the anti-slip surface.

Add a stairway light fixture

bright stairs
Credit: Getty Images / poligonchik

Use light paint colors or add higher wattage bulbs to make it easier for seniors to navigate a staircase.

Although lighting is an important factor in stairway safety, more often than not, stairs have lower illumination levels than other areas of your home. Dim lighting and stairs can be a recipe for disaster.

Dufresne says, “Adding lights either underneath the nosings, on the riser, or on the side of the wall to help illuminate the stair will ensure visibility and help avoid any missed steps.”

To make a stairway safer, consider adding bright overhead lights (think 60 watts or more) to improve visibility. For a more budget-friendly stairway light fixture, try motion-activated lights to light the way. If you choose to add over headlights, be sure to consult an electrician, and don’t forget to add switches at both the top and bottom of the stairs.

Choose paint colors wisely

For many seniors with compromised vision, it can be hard to tell where one step ends and another step begins. To mitigate the danger, consider painting the stairs in contrasting colors. Alternating between light and dark colors makes each stair plainly visible, ensuring safe passage for you or your loved one.

Add a stairlift

chair lift
Credit: Getty Images / Daisy-Daisy

You can modify a stairway with a motorized lift if you can no longer climb up and down the stairs.

In cases where mobility is severely limited, stairlifts may be the only way to move between floors safely.

Dufresne says, “Modifying a stairway with a motorized lift to transport someone who can no longer climb up and down the stairs is the ultimate solution for helping someone stay in their home safely and comfortably. This installation will cost a bit more, but it will also provide peace of mind for those aging in place.”

It may be worth noting that most health insurance policies do not cover the cost of a stairlift. However, stairlifts fall under the category of durable medical equipment, and in some cases, Medicare will cover a portion of the cost.

Homeowners, considering this option, can expect to pay anywhere between $2,000 to $5,000. This said, installation can be done in one day, and the chairs can be stowed off to the side, allowing normal access for other household members.

Improve your balance and add strengthening exercises to your routine

This safety measure is one you can make on your person, rather than your home.

Occupational therapist and founder of MyOTSpot.com, Sarah Stromsdorfer suggests that you can reduce your risk of falling and address safety concerns with stairs from a health and wellness perspective.

“Exercises that reduce fall risk while navigating stairs will focus on basic leg strengthening exercises,” she says.

A beneficial exercise routine should include calf raises, mini-lunges, single-leg lifts, mini-squats, and practicing going up and down several stairs at a time (with handrails for safety).

Stromsdorfer continues, “Seniors can try exercises that focus on improving balance, including marching in place, single-leg standing balance, and heel-to-toe marching.”

For those who choose to adopt a regular exercise routine to improve their strength and balance, Stromsdorfer suggests using a counter for support. Moreover, she cautions that “supervision is necessary for individuals with poor balance or anyone at a higher risk for falls.”

Home may be where your heart is, but chances are it wasn’t designed with aging in place in mind. To accommodate life in the golden years, your home may need a few modifications for safety’s sake.

For most homeowners tackling small safety measures like painting and adding non-slip treads is easy enough. For bigger jobs that are out of your wheelhouse, like adding overhead lighting and carpet installation, be sure to consult a professional.

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