Your elderly parent(s) may be aging in place in their own home, or they may be moving in with you or other family members. Both of those are great options for many seniors. But what if the particular house is multi-level? What if there are several steps to the entrance or to get to the backyard?
Elderly care is about more than just helping with day-to-day activities. In some cases, it’s about making sure your loved one is safe and comfortable in their home environment.
If climbing stairs is difficult for them, this can be a problem. It’s extremely important that stair safety be a priority for anyone living in a home with a staircase of any size.
The question then is, how to get an elderly person up the stairs? – Using a safety belt and walking by the side of someone with a cane should work well. If using a walker, I recommend to switch to a cane for safety. If in a wheelchair, although one person could do the job, I recommend, if possible to have two people, just in case.
I just want you to know that getting elderly people up (and down) a staircase is a combination of both technique and equipment. So, let’s get to it.
In this article we’ll go over the following:
- How to help someone using a cane up and down the stairs
- How to help someone using a walker up and down the stairs
- How to help someone in a wheelchair up and down the stairs
Why Can’t Older People Climb Stairs?
Before we get into the specific steps for helping someone in climbing stairs (or going back down), it might be helpful to know why they can’t manage the stairs on their own anymore. Let’s take a closer look at the science behind this phenomenon.
The most common problem with seniors who have difficulty climbing stairs is with weak muscle mass and strength. As we age, we naturally lose muscle mass and our muscles become weaker.
This process is called sarcopenia, and it begins as early as our 30s. Sarcopenia can be exacerbated by sedentary lifestyle choices, such as not getting enough exercise or not eating a healthy diet.
This loss of muscle mass and strength makes it harder for older adults to perform everyday tasks, such as climbing stairs.
Although there’s no way to completely prevent sarcopenia, exercise, and healthy eating can help delay the onset or progression of the condition.
In addition to sarcopenia, conditions such as arthritis or osteoporosis—both of which are more common in older adults – can further impede their ability to climb stairs.
Finally, cognitive decline can also play a role.
As we age, we may have more trouble making split-second decisions or processing information quickly. This can make it difficult to climb stairs as well as to walk down staircases, which often require quick reflexes and good coordination.
How Do You Get Someone Who Can’t Walk Up Stairs?
If you have an elderly relative or friend who has difficulty walking and needs help getting up stairs, there are some effective ways to make the process easier for both of you.
Importance of Handrails
Handrails are extremely important for seniors who have trouble getting up and down stairs for several reasons:
- Balance and Stability: As we age, our balance can deteriorate due to a variety of factors including muscle weakness, vision problems, and certain medical conditions. Handrails provide a stable support for seniors to hold onto, helping to maintain balance while navigating stairs.
- Strength and Support: Climbing stairs requires strength, particularly in the legs and core. For seniors with weakened muscles, this can be challenging. Handrails provide a means of support, allowing seniors to use their upper body strength to assist in the climbing process.
- Prevention of Falls: Falls are a significant risk for seniors, and stairs can be particularly hazardous. Handrails provide an important safety feature, giving seniors something to grab onto if they stumble or lose their balance, potentially preventing a serious fall.
- Confidence and Independence: Knowing that there’s a sturdy handrail to hold onto can give seniors the confidence to navigate stairs independently. This can contribute to their overall quality of life, allowing them to maintain mobility and independence for longer.
- Aid in Recovery and Rehabilitation: For seniors who are recovering from surgery or an injury, or who are undergoing physical rehabilitation, handrails can be an essential tool. They allow these individuals to safely practice and regain their stair-climbing abilities.
- Regulation and Compliance: In many places, building codes require the installation of handrails for safety reasons. Therefore, having handrails not only provides physical support for seniors, but also ensures that homes are in compliance with local regulations.
General Tips On Helping Someone Up Stairs
If your loved one uses a cane, it may be helpful for them to switch to a walking stick when going up and down a flight of stairs. This will give them more stability and make it easier for you to help them.
- A gait belt can be useful for providing extra support. This is a wide belt worn around the waist of an elderly person that can be grasped by someone helping them get up and down stairs.
- Starting with their weaker leg, instruct the elder to ascend or descend the stairs one step at a time. The stronger leg should follow, and then the cane. Make sure that all three – the weaker leg, the stronger leg, and the cane – are on the same step before proceeding to the next one.
- If they use a walker, you can put the walker in front of them on the stairs and help them hold onto it as they climb stairs.
- For someone in a wheelchair, you will need to pull them up the stairs while they hold onto the handrails.
- No matter what method you use, always go slowly and carefully. It is important to take your time so that neither of you gets hurt.
- If you need any assistance, don’t hesitate to ask a friend or family member for help.
Climbing stairs can be difficult for many older adults, but with some patience and careful planning, it can be done safely.
How To Make Stairs Easier For Elderly Adults
These products listed below can help to make almost any set of stairs easier for older people and also can help caregivers to provide the stairs assistance that their senior loved ones need.
Safety Gait Belt – I used safety belts exactly like this with my patients for years. They are comfortable and extremely safe to use.
Stair Treads – One of the easiest and least expensive things to do to decrease the risk of falls is to install stair treads on your indoor or outdoor steps.
Patterned Stair Treads – Dress up your staircase with any variety of patterned stair treads. There’s a large variety to choose from.
Stair Tread Strips – These clear strips will provide you with the non-slip functionality without interfering with the decor of your room.
Handi Treads – Perfect for outdoor use. These aluminum non-slip treads are built not to rust or wear out.
Stair Lifts – I’ll talk more about stair lifts further in this article but these can be a lifesaver for many seniors who want to age in place in their multi-level home or are moving into a home with a staircase.
How To Help Someone Up The Stairs With A Cane
If your elderly loved one can stand and walk / take steps and they use a standard cane or quad cane then a great option for helping them up a stairway is…
- To use a belt (or gait belt like this one on Amazon that I used as an Occupational Therapist) around their waist. I like these types of belts because they are wide enough that if the user were to stumble or fall, the grasp and pull on the belt would not dig into their skin and harm them.
- Ask the person you are helping to place one hand on the handrail of the staircase and ensure they have a good grip.
- Their cane will be in their other hand.
- Position yourself on their weaker side (which is usually the side they are holding the cane in).
- Ask the person you are helping to put their stronger leg up on the step first while keeping the cane on the floor (or lower step). Then, they transfer their weight until their entire body moves up a step.
- Then have them raise their weaker leg up onto the same step as their other foot (still keeping the cane on the floor or lower step).
- Once both legs are on the higher step, they would then bring the cane up to the same step they are standing on.
These videos below of my beautiful mom-in-law demonstrates the main points.
She doesn’t normally use any type of assistive device currently but she did a while ago, so in these videos she is just demonstrating how to properly use a cane.
But because she is so independent, my brother in law felt he could leave her on the steps to tend to the camera. I caution you NOT to do that!
But the videos will give you the basic idea of what to do to safely help your loved one. I repeat, however, that it is a good idea for you walk your senior loved one up and down the full set of stairs!
How To Help Someone Down The Stairs With A Cane
The process for going down the stairs with a cane is similar but there are a few noted differences…
- Again, make sure the person has a belt around their waist that you will be holding on to – or better yet a gait belt like I mentioned above.
- Again, you should be positioned on their weaker side.
- They should be holding on to the handrail with one hand and the cane in their other hand.
- This time, to go down the stairs, they should place the cane on the lower step first…
- Then they should step down to the next step with their weaker leg and then…
- They can step down with their stronger leg.
Robin wrote an article titled How Does A Cane Help You Walk? It’s got some great information in there not only about canes but how she convinced her elderly father (who was refusing to use a cane) to eventually begin using one.
If the person you are caring for has had a stroke – the instructions would be the same (depending of course on their level of ambulation) but check out this video in which two physical therapists do a great job in showing you what to do.
If your loved one is having mobility problems or weak leg muscles, physical therapy could help. Read about the benefits of physical therapy for seniors.
How To Help Someone Up Or Down The Stairs With A Walker
Although there is a specific technique that caregivers and physical therapists use for going up and down stairs with a walker – when it comes to doing this with an elderly person I would recommend not using it. You can see a video here of the procedure.
I would encourage you to instead, use a cane. It’s lighter, easier, and there is less risk of injury for you and the person you are helping.
How To Get Someone In A Wheelchair Up The Stairs
Going up a staircase or outdoor stairs with a wheelchair can be done by one person, if necessary.
It’s recommended, however, that two people assist in the process for optimal safety, depending on how heavy the person in the wheelchair is and how strong the person helping is.
Here are the steps on how to help your aging parent or loved one up the stairs if they are wheelchair bound.
- Check the stairs and remove any potential hazards first.
- Remove any extra weight from the wheelchair such as a backpack. Bring those items upstairs.
- Some wheelchairs have additional tippers in the back, remove those as well and bring them upstairs.
- Make sure the brakes are unlocked and the person in the wheelchair is wearing the seat belt.
- Position the wheelchair so the back faces the steps and the person helping is on the steps with both hands on the wheelchair handles.
- The second person should be in front of the wheelchair holding on to the frame of the footrests.
- It’s important that the person helping uses proper body mechanics. Use a wide stance (feet on two different steps) and perhaps squat down or kneel while pulling the wheelchair up so that they use the muscles in their legs vs. the muscles in their back and possibly injure themselves.
- Both persons helping must communicate with each other to coordinate each pull up onto each step.
- Before each pull up the step, the person in the back of the chair must push down on the handles, tipping the chair (and the person in it) back several degrees.
It’s important to note that if your senior loved one is suffering from any form of dementia or cognitive impairments, the act of being tipped back to any extent may cause them to become frightened, anxious and perhaps even combative.
If they are able to comprehend enough what is happening, an explanation of what will be happening may help.
But if they are not able to understand what is being done, the person in front of the wheelchair must be prepared to try to calm the senior down or possibly restrain them enough so that they don’t injure themselves in the process.
TIP: there are also mobile stairlifts (sort of like a wheelchair with caterpillar treads on it) that are portable and great for getting someone up or down the stairs.
How To Get Someone In A Wheelchair Down The Stairs
The process for going down a stairway or steps with an elderly person in a wheelchair is the same as going up – except this time, the wheelchair is facing towards the direction it’s going (which is the bottom of the stairs).
Here’s a video showing you both of these methods.
How Do You Carry A Heavy Person Up Stairs?
Generally speaking, you should never try to carry a person who is larger or heavier than you are up or down the stairs.
Not only is this dangerous for both of you, but there’s a good chance you’ll injure yourself in the process.
If the person is too heavy for you to carry, your best bet is to call for help. This might mean calling 911, or it might mean asking a neighbor or family member to come over and assist you.
I remember a patient of mine who weighed over 400 lbs and was well over 6 feet tall. He came to us in a level 3 coma. Which basically meant that he was dead weight. The gurney he was in was too wide for the doorway to his room in the rehabilitation unit.
It took 7 of us to roll him onto a sheet on the floor and then essentially drag him into the room and onto a makeshift bed that we made especially for him.
I injured the muscles in my shoulder during that transfer so I strongly recommend that you not attempt to transfer anyone who is heavy.
Avoid lasting damage to yourself or the disabled person by getting some help, preferably from emergency responders.
But, if the person is small enough for you to carry, there are two main methods you can use to get them up the stairs safely.
The first method is to carry them in your arms, like you would a baby. This is generally the easiest way to carry someone up the stairs, but it can be tiring if you have to do it for more than a few steps.
The second method is to do it with a second person.
Use a blanket or towel to create a makeshift sling. Place the person in the sling, and then put your arms through the loops of the fabric. This will allow you to carry the person up the stairs while keeping your arms free.
Once you get to the top of the stairs, take a moment to rest before heading back down. If possible, have someone stay with the elderly person while you go for help.
Instead of a blanket, you can use the manual Chair Lift shown here to help!
How To Make Stairs Safer
In addition to the techniques that I mentioned above, there are other various options for stair safety and many can be done without needing drastic home modifications in the current home.
There are 3 main things that you can do to make your steps as safe as possible:
- Anti-slip steps – You may think that making steps less slippery would entail a lot of money and/or a lot of time. The truth is, it’s neither. There are many different solutions to this problem. They include stair treads which these days come in the form of tape, carpet and rubber. You can also use non-skid floor coating paint. There are many different varieties and brands of each of these so take a moment a look through the ones that I recommend.
- Handrails – It seems logical that stairs would have handrails but this is not necessarily always the case. So, if your stairway happens to have no handrails, please install them for the safety of your senior loved one. Also, handrails on both sides of the stairs would be optimal if you can possibly do it.
- Lighting – If your parent is aging in place, it’s most likely that they are living in an older home. It’s very common for stairways in older homes to have little to no lighting. But our eyesight can dim from cataracts, visual impairments, etc, as we age, and added lighting can have a dramatic impact on someone’s fall risk. There are many different types of lighting you could add to your staircase, it just depends on how much you can spend.
Implementing these three (or at the very least one or two of them) will greatly reduce the chances of a fall which could save not only the cost of medical treatments and rehab – but could save their life.
The Stair Lift Option
Of course, if a stair lift product was installed, that would be the safest possible solution overall.
But with the average price of stair chair lifts ranging anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 and then going up to $10,000 if you have a curved staircase, the possibility of adding such a product is very cost prohibitive for many homeowners.
Medicare does not pay for this type of lift but they may pay for a portion of it.
Medicaid might, but it is different in each state so I cannot give you an answer if the Medicaid program in your state would provide financial assistance.
Click here for a list that I put together of phone numbers for each state’s Medicaid program.
You can read more about Stair lifts in my article Are Stair Lifts Safe? I go over some of the great features to look for in a stair lift product to maximize their safety.
Are There Portable Stair Lifts? (Wheelchair Stair Climber)
Yes, there are portable stair lifts (also known as mobile stairlifts or a wheelchair stair climber)! In fact, we wrote an article about mobile stair lifts here.
Installing a stair lift may not be an option for some seniors because of cost, but also because they may live in a residence that won’t allow one to be installed (such as an apartment or a rental home).
So, a wheelchair stair climber is a great alternative for places where a traditional stair lift can’t be utilized.
In addition, a portable stair lift can be a great option for seniors because they can be taken from one house to another, if needed. They can also be used virtually anywhere – on any staircase, indoors or outdoors.
The Home Elevator Option
Another possible option for seniors or disabled adults living in multi-level homes is the installation of an in-home elevator.
Although these can be more expensive than a stair lift (and there may not be enough room in the home to accommodate one), they have many wonderful benefits for both home safety and making life easier.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to use a quad cane on stairs?
The use of quad canes on stairs is the same as standard canes. You can read more about quad canes in our article on Quad Cane vs. Regular Cane – Which Is Better.
Is climbing stairs good for the elderly?
Stair climbing can be a great way for seniors to get exercise, provided their physician has cleared them for this activity. In fact, a 2019 study by Hongu, et al, reports that stair climbing is a good way to add exercise into daily living.
Are carpeted stairs safer than wood?
In general, carpeted stairs are safer than wood because they are padded, which helps to cushion a fall. However, carpeted stairs do have some drawbacks for the elderly who might have problems visually distinguishing the edge of a step from the edge of the next platform. We answer this question in more detail in our article, Modifying Stairs For The Elderly.
Do You Have Ideas For How To Get An Elderly Person Up The Stairs?
We love it when readers have come up with a new way of approaching a challenge like getting a senior loved one up the stairs! If you have a novel approach or would like to share a tip to help others tackle the stairs, please share your tips with us.