If you have a family member who is elderly or has difficulty walking, you may be wondering how they can safely use a walker on the stairs.
My elderly aunt went into the hospital a few months ago to get a hip replacement. The therapists recommended that she use a walker when returning home. However, she does have stairs in the house, which made my cousin (her caregiver) a little worried about how she would be able to climb the stairs.
She wondered how to go upstairs with a standard walker:
- Stand at the base of the stairs, grasp handrail with one hand
- With your free hand, turn walker sideways away from the railing
- Lift the closest pair of walker legs onto the first step
- Place one hand on the walker, the other hand on the handrail
- Push down on the walker to ensure stability
- Step up with your good leg first, then bring up the weaker leg
- Repeat until you reach the top of the stairs.
Many seniors need the help of a walker to get around their homes, complete daily activities or to complete errands and other tasks, but improper use can cause injuries.
An estimated 47,312 older adult fall injuries associated with walking aids were treated annually in U.S. EDs [Emergency Departments]: 87.3% with walkers, 12.3% with canes, and 0.4% with both. Walkers were associated with seven times as many injuries as canes. — Stevens, Ph.D., et al:The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society
Clearly, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of how to use a walker safely, especially on stairs.
Following the steps in this article are a good baseline for you to follow but we always recommend that you get personal instruction and medical advice from a trained therapist on how to properly use your walker.
There are, of course, different ways of using a standard walker on stairs, but practice and guidance from a medical professional is essential. They may give you different instructions than what is standard, depending on your specific skills and needs.
Climbing stairs with a walker takes some getting used to, but once you have the hang of it, it’s not too difficult. Be sure to grip the handrail with your left hand (or the opposite hand) and place the legs of the walker on each step before taking a step up.
What Are The Reasons For Using A Walker?
There are several reasons that someone might need to use a walker:
- To get around while recovering from hip surgery or a total knee replacement surgery
- While healing from an injury
- For support, due to age-related frailty and weakness
- Being over age 65 and having fallen one or more times
The Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) notes many risk factors for falls:
- Lower body weakness
- Vitamin D deficiency (that is, not enough vitamin D in your system)
- Difficulties with walking and balance
- Use of medicines, such as tranquilizers, sedatives, or antidepressants. Even some over-the-counter medicines can affect balance and how steady you are on your feet.
- Vision problems
- Foot pain or poor footwear
- Home hazards or dangers such as
- broken or uneven steps, and
- throw rugs or clutter that can be tripped over
The CDC also says that, “Most falls are caused by a combination of risk factors. The more risk factors a person has, the greater their chances of falling.“
Walkers, single point canes, and other assistive devices can help to reduce your fall risk.
When Using A Standard Walker, Which Leg Goes First?
If you are using a walker after surgery, we recommend that you use the leg that was operated on first and then your stronger leg.
If you had surgery on both legs, you can use either leg first. This is to ensure you can put most of your weight on the walker instead of your weaker leg.
If you are using the walker for stability and don’t believe you have a “weaker leg,” lead with whichever leg feels most natural. Remember, the goal is to let your walker help you gain balance, increase mobility, and get around safely.
If you have concerns over which leg to lead with, consult your doctor or physical therapist, and they will be able to give you guided specifics.
Using A Safe Walker
Before using a walker, it’s important to make sure that it’s as safe as possible for you to use. Here are some tips.
- Make sure it has rubber tips on it’s legs to keep it from sliding.
- Make sure the walker is in good condition.
- Make sure it’s locked open completely. You don’t want it to collapse on you while you are using it.
- Make sure the handles are as comfortable as possible for your hands. If they give you significant pain, add some replacement walker hand grips like these.
- Make sure the height of the walker is appropriate. (See our article on How To Fit A Walker)
- Never carry anything while using a walker on stairs. Using a fanny pack may be a good idea if you need to carry small items or something like a smart phone.
An occupational therapist can also help you to find the best way for you to carry anything that you may need while using a walker.
How Do You Climb Stairs With A Standard Walker?
It can be difficult, not to mention intimidating, to figure out how to climb stairs with a walker. But as we touched on in the intro, if you follow these steps, you will be a pro in no time:
- The first thing you need to do is make sure the walker legs are all in place and sturdy.
- When using a walker to climb stairs, be sure to take small steps.
- Stand at the bottom of the steps with the walker in front of you (between you and the steps)
- The next step is to grasp the handrail firmly with the hand closest to the railing.
- Turn the walker sideways, so the crossbar faces away from the steps. This places the walk next to your side.
- Move the closest two legs of the walker onto the first step, then ensure the walker is stable before you advance.
- Place one hand on the end of the walker and your other hand on the handrail for additional support. It is important to balance yourself evenly between the handrail and the walker.
- Push down on your walker to ensure it is secure and stable.
- Take a step up with your good leg, and draw your weaker leg up afterward.
- Continue this process to continue up the rest of your stairs.
Remember to go slow and steady when going up any set of stairs.
Check out this video for a demonstration of how to go up a set of stairs with a walker:
How To Walk Up And Down Stairs With A Walker With Wheels
Walkers with wheels are typically meant more for walking long distances, rather than for overall stability. So, using them on the stairs can be tricky and sometimes even dangerous.
If you have a walker with just two wheels on the front, you can still take on the stairs.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind if your walker has wheels on the front two legs:
- Orthopaedic surgeons and physical therapists recommend an easy way to remember which leg to use is UP with the good and DOWN with the bad.
- You will follow the same steps you did to get up the stairs with a normal walker, but with some added precautions to be sure the wheels do not cause a slip or fall.
- Place your weight distribution on the side of the walker that has the leg on it. This will help keep you stable.
- Utilize the handrail heavily. You want the handrail to be your main support, while the walker is there as a backup to help keep you steady on both sides.
The main concern with the wheels is distributing weight incorrectly and placing too much weight on the side with the wheels. As always, take your time and ensure the legs are fully connected on the ground safely before making any advancements.
If you are using a rollator that has wheels on all four legs, these should not be used for ascending or descending stairs. They will not provide the stability you need and can cause a fall. In those cases, you should opt to switch it out for a cane to offer more stability on the stairs. A cane and a handrail will offer much more stability than a rollator.
Many rollators even come with a slot to hold a cane. If you are walking with someone or there is someone there to ask for help, your best option when facing stairs will be to utilize your cane and the handrail while you get help from someone to carry the rollator up behind you.
Always discuss these options and instructions with your doctor or therapist. If you have any concerns, they will be able to walk you through the steps and can tailor their advice to your unique health needs.
How Do You Go Down A Ramp With A Standard Walker?
When you encounter a ramp, it is typically met with a sigh of relief because you won’t have to tackle multiple flights of stairs. But going down a ramp can be a bit tricky because of the inertia our bodies encounter when walking down any type of incline.
Here are some tips to help you get down ramps confidently and safely:
- Do not rush. Take your time and steady your pace.
- Ensure all four legs of the walker are safely and securely on the ground.
- Get a strong grip on the walker, and don’t lean over it. This will cause the momentum to go too quickly forward. Try to keep a good posture and avoid leaning forward as much as possible.
- Lead with your weak leg (if applicable) and let your other leg follow.
- If you begin to feel like you are going too fast or the incline is too difficult, stop any forward movement. If there is a handrail nearby, grab it and ensure your stability until you can continue.
Walkers Vs. Canes For Going Up Stairs
Walkers were created for stability. The four-leg design makes it the most stable option for mobility aids. They are great for seniors or anyone recovering from major surgery or injury who need to rely on something to put their weight on.
Walkers are also best when it comes to needing a quick rest. Being able to hold onto the handle and rest your weight on a walker is much easier than putting your weight onto a solitary cane.
Canes have their own set of perks when it comes to navigating steps. They don’t offer the same stability as a walker. But they can be helpful mobility aids for those who don’t need quite as much assistance or support on stairs. Read our article. How To Walk Up Stairs With A Cane, to learn more.
If you have concerns over the act of climbing and you know you will need to rely heavily on the mobility aid, then a walker will be best for stairs.
With either option, you should utilize the handrail for additional assistance.
The Bottom Line
Mobility aids such as walkers have become more and more innovative over the years. They are amazing resources for seniors who need extra stability or help walking longer distances. They are equally as useful if you’ve had an injury or surgery and need some additional help.
When using a walker on the stairs and whether it’s a long or short distance, the most important things to remember are to take your time and to be sure the walker legs are all stable in place before making any advancements.
Practice these techniques with people around so you can master them and consult your doctor or physical therapist for further guidance based on specific ailments or needs.