How to Increase Stair Safety for Seniors

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Stair safety for seniors is one of the biggest concerns for the elderly since most homes have steps of some kind. According to AARP, most older adults prefer to continue living at home as they age, so finding ways to make stairs safer is critical.

Although steps can be hazardous for anyone, they are especially dangerous for older adults and people with limited mobility. Age-related factors such as strength deficits, poor vision, chronic pain, impaired mobility, poor balance, and functional decline all increase risk of falls. 

Thankfully, there are many ways to make a stairway safer for seniors so that you and your loved ones can live at home safely and independently. 

Stair safety for seniors can be improved by adding stair railings, more lighting and treatments for stair treads.

Maximize stair safety for seniors with solutions such as sturdy stair railings and in-step lighting. Clearing clutter from steps also helps to improve senior safety on stairs. 

Finding solutions to improve stair safety for seniors is a primary concern for those who want to Age in Placeas steps are one of the most problematic issues of living at home during one’s Golden Years.  

Steps are not only challenging to navigate but can be quite dangerous. Staircase remodels, and stair alternatives can be expensive.

The presence of steps could determine whether someone chooses to continue living at home or move to a more accessible home during retirement. But in most situations, steps don’t have to be so problematic through creativity and thorough planning.

Before we look at solutions to make stairs safer, let’s examine why steps are so dangerous.

Why are stairs dangerous for older adults?

Climbing up and down stairs is a complex task requiring adequate dynamic balance, vision, strength, and coordination to be successful. With age, these systems become impaired, causing stair negotiation to become more challenging and sometimes even a recipe for disaster.

Many stairs accidents result in an embarrassing situation, significant injury, and sometimes even death. According to a 2018 Journal of Emergency Medicine study, over 1 million people per year were treated in emergency departments in the United States for injuries related to falls on stairs.

STEPS, NO MATTER HOW MANY, NEED TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY.

As a Physical Therapist for over 20 years, I have worked with countless patients whose injuries resulted in loss of independence from accidents on stairs. These injuries ranged from cuts, bruises, and ankle sprain to hip fractures and traumatic brain injuries. 

Each person’s story is unique, and there is no magic recipe for preventing falls on stairs. Some people use safety measures such as railings, and some don’t. Other folks misread the steps or trip over a pet. Some have a loss of balance at the top of the steps and tumble to the bottom. 

Common stair design issues

There are many types of stair designs and variations of all kinds. Let’s highlight a few of the most problematic stair situations.

Steep steps

Generally, steps that are less steep and have a lower slope are more comfortable to ascend and descend.  

Technically speaking, the rise-to-run ratio is off with steep steps. The step rise is the vertical distance from the top of one stair tread to the top of the next stair tread. The step run is the horizontal distance from the edge of one stair nosing to the edge of the next nosing.  

Steep stairs are difficult to climb especially for the elderly.

Why wouldn’t all steps have the perfect slope ratio? Well, it’s not that simple. Although building codes specify step configurations, there are exceptions, and then there are DIY fixes, damage, structural obstacles, etc. 

Shallow stair treads

The step treads are too short to comfortably place the entire or most of the foot on the step. As someone with a women’s size ten shoe, I find this problem a lot! Shallow, steep stairs are common with basement steps. 

Uneven steps

For whatever reason, some of the steps are one height, but others are another step height. Uneven step heights are tricky because our brain expects even steps, and when the step size is different, it can throw off your balance.

No handrails or unsafe railings 

Ideally, all steps would have two railings spaced so that you can grip a rail with each hand. Handrails, especially those used frequently or by someone who pulls themselves up with the railing, can become loose and need to be inspected and retightened or reinforced regularly.

Curved or spiral stairs 

Curved and spiral stairs can be challenging, especially for older adults. The triangular steps make it harder to position the foot on the step. If the steps have open backs, the foot may slip through the step. Most people find spiral stairs challenging, mainly when used on a routine basis.

Any or all of these step issues make it more challenging to use the stairs safely. For those with mobility problems, it may make stair usage impossible. 

Spiral staircases and curved stairs are difficult for seniors to use.

Solutions to increase stair safety for seniors

It’s important to address safety concerns with stairs before mishaps occur. Here are 10 ways to keep seniors safe on stairs.

Eliminate clutter

This is an easy fix for a common environmental hazard. Remove all objects and clutter from steps as they pose a significant trip hazard. Yes, this includes plants, baskets, and seasonal items for decorative purposes.  

Clean steps 

Environmental factors can significantly impact stair safety. Keep all steps free of debris, including excess dust and accumulation of hair, human or pet, that can become slippery on non-carpeted steps.   

For outdoor steps, especially those that don’t get enough sunlight, ensure no slippery substances such as algae are on steps. Use a pressure washer or water and a stiff-bristled brush to remove any growth regularly.  

Add railings or repair existing rails 

It doesn’t matter how many steps there are; railings are an essential safety feature to reduce the risk for falls. 

Railings should be at a comfortable height. 

Reinforce loose stair railings and check them frequently to ensure they’re sturdy and well secured.

Two railings are preferable to one handrail to provide additional support and stair safety.

Repairing stair rails and adding sturdy railings helps to make stairs safer for seniors at home.

Improve lighting 

Improved lighting can significantly improve safety on stairs.
Step lighting increases senior stair safety

Often, stairs have lower illumination levels compared to other areas in and around the home, but stairways must have proper lighting. Low glare overhead lighting is usually most helpful. If possible, have accessible switches to turn the lights on and off at both the top and bottom of the steps. Remote light switches can provide another flexible lighting solution. 

If there are no lights or not enough light, battery-operated motion sensor lights and nightlights close to the steps could also help to add illumination to the stairs. Strip lights or step lights can direct light onto steps. Outdoor steps must also be well lit; motion-sensor lights work well.  

Consider stair gates 

To prevent people or pets from going on the steps, install a gate at the top, bottom, or both locations to limit access.

Improve or add stair treads 

Make sure stair treads are in good condition and are well secured. 

For open tread stairs, consider adding a rear tread. If a rear tread is present, make sure it is secure. 

When treads are loose, secure them. If any nails are sticking out, make sure to hammer them flat.

Wood, tile, or cement steps are slippery and require skid resistance on the stair treads. There are a variety of ways to add slip resistance.

  • Use adhesive strips or anti-slip tape to provide traction.
  • Apply a surface treatment to give the steps a rough texture. 
  • Install rubber stair treads, carpeted treads, or stair carpeting. Always choose non-slippery carpet material.

Secure stair carpeting 

Carpeting on stairs, whether wall to wall, a carpet runner, or a carpet tread on each step, needs to be well attached and should not have excessive padding. Since proper installation is a critical factor for safety, consider having the carpet installed by a qualified carpet fitter.

Any carpeting on stairs must be well-secured to prevent tripping hazards.

Avoid distracting designs

Do not use busy, distracting patterns on stair carpeting or paint/stain treatments. Keep the focus on safely navigating the stairs, not on the decoration.  

Define step edges 

Everyone needs to be able to see the edge or stair nosing of each step to avoid a fall. As our eyes age, vision declines, and depth perception decreases, so this becomes even more important. Apply a contrasting color strip using paint or adhesive tape to the edge of each stair tread for easy visibility.

Add seating

If space allows, position a chair on the staircase landing to make it easier to rest mid-stair climb. A seat near the top and bottom of the steps is also helpful for resting or placing objects that might otherwise be set on the steps causing a trip hazard.

Stair alternatives for senior safety

If the above ideas are not enough to make stairs safe for seniors or there is limited mobility, consider installing a stair alternative. Here are the most common step alternatives.

Ramps

Use ramps at exterior entrances where there is a transition of a few feet of height or less. They can be permanent or temporary and made of wood, composite, or metal.  

A ramped entrance can also be accomplished by regrading the ground and installing concrete or pavers. This type of ramp can blend into the landscape more easily.   

Ramps are also used indoors. Often they are used where there are one or two steps from one area of the home to another.

Platform lift or wheelchair lift

For a platform or wheelchair lift, a wheelchair is rolled onto a base, moving straight up or down from one level to another. They generally lift several feet, but some can span 12 feet or greater. 

Another type of platform lift can glide up and down stairs. These devices require a wider staircase.

Indoor and outdoor versions of platform lifts are available. 

Stairlift or Stairglide

Sometimes referred to as a stair chair, a stair lift or stair glide is a seat attached to the stair treads that glides up and down interior or exterior stairs.  

Usually seen on straight stairs, stair glides are available for stairs that curve or are connected by a landing.

One alternative to stairs is a stairlift or stairglide.

Elevator

Elevators are used when a height of more than a few feet needs to be traveled. There are indoor models as well as outdoor versions. Outside elevators attach to the home’s exterior and can withstand the weather.

Develop a step-by-step stair solutions plan

Stair safety for seniors is critically important to maintain independence and the ability to live at home for as long as possible, a concept known as aging in place. 

Falls on stairs can result in life-changing injuries, hospital admissions, and even death. In addition, fear of falling significantly reduces an older adult’s quality of life. 

The key is to take action to make stairs safer and decrease the risk of accidents before a stairway mishap occurs. Plan ahead to keep seniors safe on stairs.

If you found these stair ideas helpful and want to learn more about stair safety and future-proofing your home or the home of a loved one, take a look at the Retirement Independence Home Design Road Map.

About the Author

As a home health Physical Therapist for over 20 years, I help clients solve home dilemmas so they can live their best life.

I'm here to use that same problem-solving expertise and training as a Certified Aging in Place Specialist to help you create an optimized home that's forward-thinking and future-ready to support you and your loved ones well for a lifetime.

Ready to discover your Golden Girl strategy for a retirement-ready home?