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Modifying Stairs For The Elderly

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Updated October 3, 2022 – Whether your own home has 2 steps or an entire staircase of steps, indoors or outdoors, if you are an older person, it’s important to make the necessary changes to make those steps as safe as as they can be to reduce the risk of accidents.

What is needed for modifying stairs for the elderly? – The 5 main components to make stairs safer for senior citizens are:

  1. making the steps non-slippery
  2. proper installation of handrails
  3. lighting
  4. adaptive equipment as needed
  5. remove any clutter on the steps

There are several ways that you or the family members of elderly people can modify staircases to make them more “senior friendly”.

Sometimes a couple of small changes can reduce the risk of falling, other times several new safety measures are needed – it just depends on the physical and cognitive status of the older individuals you are trying to make the stairs safer for.

How Do You Make Stairs Safer For Seniors?

Stair climbing can be a very good exercise for seniors so if you are capable of doing this it would be a very good exercise. But, you must do it safely.

There are 5 main home modifications that you can do to make stairs easier for older people.

1. Anti-slip products for 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.

2. 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, a sturdy handrail on both sides of the stairs would be optimal if you can possibly do it.

3. Adequate 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 these homes to little to no light source on a flight of stairs. There are many different types of lighting you could add to your staircase, it just depends on how much you can spend.

4. Adaptive Equipment – Don’t be afraid to introduce adaptive equipment to make stairs safer and easier for older adults.

  • Stair Lifts
  • Half steps or blocks
  • Stair walkers and bars

5. Remove Clutter – A cluttered stairway is a trip hazard! Keep the stairway clean and free of clutter and remove any obstacles from the stairway. Make sure that items such as boxes, shoes, or clothes are not left on the stairs where someone could trip over them. Make sure that any loose carpeting is secured or removed altogether.

Anti-Slip Products For Steps

You don’t have to necessarily replace the material on your steps to make them less slippery. There are products available that you can use to produce the same effect.

  • Look into products by companies like Waux, Trusty-Step, Slip Doctors and SlipTec Solutions which all offer products that can be applied (like a varnish) onto existing flooring. It works on ceramic tile, terrazzo, porcelain, quarry tile, fiberglass, brick, wood, concrete, marble, granite, vinyl and travertine tiles.
  • Carpet stair treads come in a variety of styles and designs. You can choose from simple styles like these or patterned styles like these. There are many more to choose from so look through the multitude of styles available either at your local carpet store or online.
  • Clear Anti Slip Roll by EdenProducts is perfect for indoor wooden steps, bathroom flooring (tile, vinyl, linoleum, etc.) and any other location that is not carpeted. I would also recommend this in the master bedroom, by the bedside if the floor there is not carpeted.
  • For outdoor steps – Outdoor Anti Slip Treads like the ones made by Handi-Treads are specifically designed for wooden outdoor steps, decks and other wood surfaces. It’s an aluminum product that the manufacturer states will not rust or wear out.
  • Another outdoor option are rubber floor treads are an excellent product as well and these days, the large variety are produced for both indoor and outdoor. I would recommend to purchase solid rubber treads (vs the cut out ones) to avoid any problems during the use of a walker or a cane. I personally have dealt with having to remove the tip of a cane that was jammed into a rubber floor tread that had intricate lacy cutouts.

Safety Handrails For The Elderly

Just as grab bars reduce the risk of falls in a walk-in shower, it seems logical that stairs would have handrails (especially on long staircases) but this is not necessarily 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.

Here are some tips on how to make handrails safer for older adults:

  • For outdoor steps, extend the handrail beyond the last step. Simplified Building makes a handrail kit that can help with that.
  • If at all possible, avoid breaks in the handrail. Make it a continuous handrail. This way, someone using it doesn’t have to lift their hand off the rail at all.
  • If the existing handrail is too high for the elderly person, attaching a second handrail that is lower will make it much safer and easier.

Lighting For Steps

As we age, we become more prone to vision problems, so I love the idea of lighting for steps, indoors and outdoors.

Fortunately for us, there are many options available for us today. Everything from battery powered units to LED rope lights to motion sensor lights.

You can place the lights under open tread stairs (so they highlight the steps). You can lights on the walls up the full length of the stairs. You can also place lights on the wall by each step.

Installation of these plus any required light switches at the top of the stairs or bottom of the staircase will require a handyman or electrician. so check with either one of these professionals for this project.

I know it may seem like a lot but I will tell you that lighting is one of the most underused tools to make a home safer.

It’s fairly inexpensive and it can end up saving you your senior loved one serious injury, or even their life.

Some seniors and their families consider putting Glow In The Dark tape on the stairs (as well as other places).

That seems like it would be a good idea but we reviewed this product and there is a downside.

After 12 hours of no exposure to light – the “glow” in the tape product is very low and would not, in our opinion, provide enough light.

However, if the tape could be exposed to a significant amount of light – it could work quite well.

Stair Assistance For The Elderly

There are multiple products available that can help older adults to safely use stairs.

Whether the steps are indoors or outdoors, these 3 products listed below can help to make any set of steps safer.

  • Stair lifts
  • Half steps / blocks
  • Stair walkers and bars

Stair Lifts

Of course, if a stairlift product was installed, that would be the safest possible solution overall.

But with the average price of a stair lift 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 stairlifts but they may pay for a portion of it.

Medicaid is different in each state so I cannot give you an answer if the Medicaid program in your state would pay for a stairlift product.

Click here for a list that I put together of phone numbers for each state’s Medicaid program.

You can read more about Stairlifts in my article Are Stairlifts Safe? I go over some of the great features to look for in a stairlift product to maximize their safety.

Mobile Stairlifts

Mobile stairlifts are more like a wheelchair that has caterpillar tracks on it.

The tracks are battery powered so they help a caregiver “climb stairs” or descend them when moving a person who cannot climb stairs.

There is no installation required and they are portable, so you can take your stairlift anywhere.

Half Steps or Blocks

Stair aide blocks like this one can be used by someone who has trouble lifting their leg(s) high enough to reach the next step.

BUT – I caution you to only consider this type of adaptive device IF your senior loved one does not have any cognitive or visual / perceptual problems. Using products like this requires some serious coordination and concentration.

Stair Walkers and Bars

Stair assist devices like the ones from StairSteady and Assistep are wonderful products that would help anyone aging in place.

I would recommend to consult with your physician and/or physical therapist before purchasing and using a product like this.

These products are available in many parts of the world but unfortunately, not in the USA. At least, not yet.

Here is a video of the StairSteady product to give you an idea of how they can help someone up and down the stairs.

Are Stairs Safer With Or Without Carpet?

Stairs can be dangerous, especially for older adults. Falls are a leading cause of injuries and hospitalizations, so it’s important to take precautions in your home.

One question you may have is whether it’s safer to have stairs with or without carpet. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of each option.

The Pros of Adding Carpet to Your Stairs

  1. Fitted carpet provides a bit of extra grip and traction that can help prevent slips and falls.
  2. Carpet can make your stairs more comfortable by cushioning your steps. If you have knee or hip pain, walking up and down hardwood stairs can be quite uncomfortable.
  3. Carpet can be cheaper than other options. If you’re on a tight budget, carpeting your stairs may be a more affordable option than other alternatives such as hardwood or tile.

The Cons of Adding Carpet to Your Stairs

There are a few factors to consider on the topic of carpeting on stairs.

  1. Solid color carpeting can make it difficult for an older adult to visually distinguish between the step and the edge of the step. The use of contrasting colors at the top and bottom of the stairs would help to mitigate this.
  2. Patterned carpeting can also make it very difficult to distinguish between the edge of the step and the platform of the step.
  3. If the treads of the steps (the depth of the steps) are short then adding carpeting will only make them shorter and less safe.
  4. If the carpeting comes loose and begins to bunch up it could contribute to someone tripping and falling.

Generally speaking, I do think that fully carpeted stairs are better because the padding installed under the carpeting can help to cushion a fall, if a fall were to happen.

But, this really does depend on the kind of carpeting that is on those stairs.

  • If it’s a plush type of carpeting then it could actually be a tripping hazard in its own right.
  • If it’s low pile type of carpeting, like Berber, then it may be safer, overall.

You can read more about the pros and cons on carpeting on stairs here.

Final Thoughts

By taking a few simple precautions, you can help reduce the risk of falls and injuries for older adults in your life. Be sure to check your stairway for hazards and make any necessary repairs or adjustments.

And if you have questions about making your home safe for an elderly loved one, enlist the use of a professional occupational therapist to find out the most effective ways to reduce any fall hazard in your home.

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