Does this mean seniors should avoid taking the stairs? Not at all. In fact climbing stairs is a beneficial exercise that can reduce the risk of falls.
But it’s important to reduce the risk of falling down the stairs as much as possible. Below are some tips on how to make stairs safer for seniors. These tips also improve stair safety for everyone else.
How To Make Stairs Safer For Seniors
1. Make The Stairs Slip-resistant
Stairs with a smooth surface are a huge risk to seniors. They can be dangerous even when completely dry.
Because older people have less stability and balance, even a small slip can send them tumbling down the stairs and cause serious injuries.
The first thing to check when assessing the safety of stairs is whether they need additional traction.
The easiest way to increase traction on stairs is to add a runner. Just make sure the carpet has no frills or curled edges that can trip someone.
It should be a low-pile carpet that’s attached tightly to the floor especially around the edges.
There are also anti-slip paints and coatings that you can apply on the stairs to make them slip-resistant.
Another option is to add anti-slip strips or a grip tape along the edges of the treads. You can easily get these strips or tape online.
Tip: Even as you improve traction on the stairs, it’s a good idea to have the elderly person wear anti-slip shoes or socks while in the house. They provide extra protection whether they are on the stairs or not.
2. Add Handrails On Both Sides
Handrails provide a lot of help when going up and down the stairs. They make it easier to pull yourself up when going up and they provide stability and balance when coming down.
Ideally, you should have handrails on both sides of the staircase for extra support. It also ensures that seniors with one arthritic hand have a rail on the side where their stronger hand is.
But if you have a narrow stairway, a single handrail will have to do. Making the stairs too narrow can pose other risks.
Here are some tips to remember when it comes to adding handrails to stairs.
- Make sure the handrails are easy to grip even when one has wet or sweaty hands. Consider adding grip tape to the handrails to make them easier and safer to use.
- Don’t forget to regularly check and tighten the handrails. They can get loose with time especially if they are used often.
- If the current handrail is set too high, install another one that’s lower.
- Make sure the handrails are continuous without any breaks. This eliminates the need for someone to lift their hand off the rail.
3. Add Lighting To The Stairs
It is easy to trip on the stairs if you cannot see them clearly. This can be especially dangerous for seniors with failing eyesight.
One of the best ways to make stairs safer is to make them well lit at all times by adding staircase lights.
There are different kinds of stairway lights ranging from overhead lights to lights that are integrated into the stairs.
If you don’t want to keep the lights on all the time, get motion sensor lights that turn on whenever someone approaches the stairs.
4. Contrast The Treads and The Risers
If you’ve ever used stairs that are all the same colour, you know how easy it is to miss a step and go tumbling.
That’s because there isn’t a clear contrast between the treads and the risers. So it can be hard to tell where the edge of the step is, especially in low light conditions.
Uniformly coloured stairs can be especially dangerous for visually impaired seniors. They might even appear like a smooth ramp.
Ideally, the treads (the flat part of a step) should be a different colour from the riser. This creates a clear contrast between the two and makes tripping less likely.
Another option is to add a contrast strip at the edge of each tread. There are contrast tapes (usually black and yellow) made specifically for use on stairs.
These tapes are also anti-slip, so you can make the stairs less slippery while also making them more visible.
Also add tape at the bottom and top of the stairs to indicate where the steps begin and end.
Another stair contrast technique that works great is adding strip lighting at the edge of each step. The lights illuminate the stairs while also creating a contrast between each step.
5. Extend The Nosing On The Stairs
Stairs with narrow treads can be dangerous to use. They don’t provide enough surface area for one to step on safely.
You can solve this by adding or extending nosing on the stairs. The nosing is the part of the tread that protrudes beyond the riser. Nosing is added to create deeper steps that are safer to use.
Note, however, that adding the same nosing size to each tread doesn’t actually increase the depth of the stairs. It can make the stairs a bit safer to use, but it doesn’t make individual treads significantly bigger.
In fact, if a building inspector measures the steps, they’ll say the treads are exactly the same depth as they were before.
If you want to make the stairs noticeably deeper and easier to use, you’ll need to extend each tread a little bit more than the previous one starting from the top.
Say you extend the top tread by 1 inch. You’ll need to extend the next one by 2 inches and the next one by 3 inches, and so on up to the bottom tread.
This video clearly explains this with some easy to understand visuals.
Don’t forget to add support under each extension.
6. Keep The Stairs Clutter-free
Regularly check the stairs to make sure it is free of clutter. Even a small item left on the stairs can cause someone elderly to lose balance and fall.
Keep the stairs free of things like books, toys and clothes. Even if someone doesn’t trip on an object, they might fall trying to step over it.
On the same note, keep the stairs clean and dry. If there’s a spill or accident on the stairs, clean it up immediately.
After cleaning the stairs, dry them immediately with a dry rug or mop. Alternatively, close off the stairs with a gate until they are dry and safe to use.
7. Use Assistive/Mobility Devices
Most seniors are able to use the stairs unassisted well into their 60s or 70s. But at some point, you have to determine when it’s no longer safe for them to go up and down the stairs on their own.
If the person has become weak, they have arthritis, or if they have an injury, consider getting an assistive or mobility device to help them use the stairs safely.
These devices can help them stay at home and enjoy their independence for longer.
For example, there are special walking canes designed to make it easier to use stairs. One of the designs I’ve come across is a cane with a small platform on it that acts like a half step. The user steps on it then climbs onto the next step.
For seniors who cannot use the stairs even with a cane, a stairlift is the best solution. Alternatively, get one of those electric wheelchairs that can go up and down the stairs.
8. Make The Stairs Less Steep
Steep stairs are not only difficult for seniors to navigate, they can be dangerous and create a high risk of falling.
They can be especially challenging for seniors with hip pain, bad knees and other injuries.
The height of risers on a stairway should be between 150mm to 200mm. A height closer to 150mm (6 inches) is ideal for seniors.
If your stairs are higher than 200mm (8 inches), they are too steep and you may need to reduce the riser height.
As this video explains, lowering stair height is not easy. You may need to add a tread or two and add more materials to the stairs.
We recommend getting a pro to do the job.
How Do I Make Outdoor Stairs Safe?
Outdoor stairs can be dangerous to use because they are exposed to the elements. Water or snow on the steps is a tripping hazard.
To make them safe, make sure the treads are highly textured such that they provide good traction even when wet.
Abrasive or textured steps can help maintain traction when it snows, but only to a point. Make sure you clear snow promptly to make the stairs safe to use.
As with indoor stairs, visibility and contrast is essential for outdoor stairs. Add plenty of lighting for nighttime use and use contrasting colours on treads and risers for easy visibility.
Handrails are a must-have on both sides. Make sure they also provide a good grip and that they are sturdy.