8 Ways to Make a Senior’s Stairs Safer at Home

Every year in the United States, 1 million people are injured on stairs. That equates to an average of approximately 3,000 Americans injured on stairs daily. That’s two people injured on stairs in the country every minute. The risk of injuries on stairs increases significantly as people grow older.

Stairs are a high-risk area for falls, no matter your age, says Gary Smith, M.D., lead author of the 2017 study and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. But as you get older, he explains, changes in your coordination, strength, and vision can make navigating a stairway more challenging – particularly for older people.

The research study just noted that individuals older than 60 are a remarkable six times more likely than younger people to be hospitalized after a stair-related injury. Older adults may have conditions and comorbidities that increase their risk of injury if they fall. For example, if a person has osteoporosis, that individual will be more likely to break a bone upon falling. If a person takes an anticoagulant, as many older adults do, an individual could develop intracranial bleeding (bleeding around the brain) if a fall occurs and the person hits his or her head.

Over 50 percent of homes in the United States contain stairs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In some areas in the country, including New England and the Middle Atlantic, as many as 90 percent of homes are multi-story residences.

Because falls can be devastating for older adults, it’s important to be proactive and look for ways to preemptively mitigate your risk, according to Eric B. Larson, M.D. Larson is a senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute and coauthor of Enlightened Aging: Building Resilience for a Long, Active Life.

There are several ways in which risks can be mitigated. We discuss eight key ways in which a senior’s stairs can be made safer at home:

  • Add traction
  • Enhance lighting
  • Enhance visual cues
  • Make step height and depth consistent
  • Eliminate bottom step illusion
  • Upgrade handrail
  • Clear clutter
  • Consider a chairlift

Add Traction

Researchers involved in stair safety have found that most falls result from slipping and not tripping. Therefore, it is vital to ensure that the surface of the steps are not slippery.

If you have smooth steps made of wood or tile, safety experts recommend applying something to the surface of each step to add friction and traction. Various products are available to seniors who want to enhance stair and step safety. These include rubber or abrasive stair treads as well as anti-slip tape strips.

Low-pile carpeting is another option. However, to be effective, it must be tightly fitted.

Enhance Lighting

Research studies show that inadequate lighting has been associated with stair falls among people of all ages. Nonetheless, stairwells in many older homes are less well-lit than the rest of the residence.

Stair safety can be enhanced through the installation of bright lights. This can make it easier to place feet when walking up or down steps. It is important to illuminate the top and bottom steps (because that’s where most falls occur).

Make sure there is a light switch at the top and bottom of each staircase. “You don’t want to go upstairs, realize you left the light off, but then you can’t turn it on because the switch is at the bottom,” says Greg Hartley, a board-certified geriatric clinical specialist in Miami and the vice president of the board of APTA Geriatrics.

Another easy way to boost lighting in your stairwell is to wall-mount wireless motion-sensing night lights at foot and ankle levels, Hartley recommends.

Enhance Visual Cues

With the visual challenges that come with age, it can be difficult to distinguish individual steps, especially when descending stairs that are uniform in color. This can be particularly the case if a person is diagnosed with dementia and is beyond the earliest stage of the condition.

As people age, depth perception becomes more challenging. Accommodating light and dark colors becomes more problematic. This particularly is the case if stairs have a light beige or white carpet. This can result if there is no visual separation of where a step is. Adding reflective tape or colored paint to the edge of each step can create a clear distinction of where each step ends.

Another improvement that can help when ascending stairs is to paint the vertical portion of wooden steps white or contrasting colors. That can help a senior distinguish the risers from the treads or the part of the step that is meant to be stepped on by a person going up or down.

Make Step Height and Depth Consistent

To prevent tripping, the horizontal and vertical surfaces of stairs should be uniform, not different widths and heights, according to safety experts. A common problem in many older homes is a top step that is wider than the rest. As a result, people place their feet too far forward on the second or third step, increasing the risk of a fall.

If you have a wider top step, consider hiring a handyman or carpenter to add what is known as a nosing to the landing.

Eliminate Bottom Step Illusion

Some older homes have a bottom step that blends in with the landing rather than the rest of the staircase. This can create danger for those individuals who mistakenly believe they are stepping onto a flat landing. This design defect is so common that experts have a name for it: the bottom-of-flight illusion.

Consider making changes to distinguish the bottom step from the landing. This can be accomplished by marking it with a rubber tread or anti-slip tape. The bottom step could be upgraded to match the rest of the staircase.

Upgrade Handrail

An appropriate handrail is an often-overlooked safety component of a staircase. Research studies consistently demonstrate how a suitable handrail help assist with balance and prevent a fall on stairs.

Handrails in many residences are more decorative than functional. They can be hard to grasp or grip if they are large, bulky, rectangular, or ornately shaped. The safest rails are rounded. Ideally, a person’s hand should be able to encircle a handrail completely.

For extra safety, consider installing rails on both sides of the stairs. This design will help a senior with balance issues.

Keep in mind that handrails should run the entire length of a staircase. They should be installed 30 to 36 inches from the floor. In addition, they need to be securely attached to studs in the wall so they don’t rip out if weight is put on them.

Clear Clutter

It is vital to keep stairs clear of clutter. This includes the use of throw rugs at the top and bottom of staircases.

Consider a Chairlift

If a senior finds stairs increasingly difficult to navigate, consider installing a motorized chairlift.

Prices of stair lifts vary from $2,000 to $10,000. Higher costs occur if there is a landing or a turn in a staircase. Installation normally can be completed in a day. In many cases, if a person sells a home where a lift is installed, the lift can be removed without significant damage to the staircase.

Incorporating these eight tactics into overall stair safety reduces the risk of injury to a senior. This works to lessen one of the most common hazards an older person faces.