Senior Safety

How to Make Stairs Safe for Seniors – A Helpful Guide

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A closeup photo of a man stepping up on a stair

Stairs can be found in many homes, yet only a few of them are senior-friendly. That is one of the reasons why they’re responsible for so many home accidents.

Using non-senior friendly stairs is not only exhausting but also extremely hazardous for older adults. According to statistics, stairway falls are the main cause of accidental death among elderly people (source).

By improving stair safety, you can not only prevent falls and slips but also make seniors’ life so much easier: they will be able to move around the house more independently without fear of falling. Don’t worry, you don’t have to invest a lot of time and money to make the stairs safer for seniors: with only a few changes you can really improve safety a lot.

And now let’s see seven effective ways to really make stairs safe for seniors:

1. Provide Adequate Lighting

Most seniors suffer from vision impairment of some degree. For them, it’s particularly difficult to move around safely in the absence of enough light. That’s why it’s so important to make dark places in your home bright and the staircase is no exception.

Stairs should be well-lit from the bottom to the top. Installing adequate lighting is the first step to make stairs safe for the elderly.

Proper stairway lighting can be accomplished in many different ways. One of the easiest solutions is to install wall lights. These can be automatic lights with motion sensors or regular ones with an easily accessible switch on both ends of the stairs.

Another solution would be installing wall recessed lights. They can be especially useful when you don’t have enough space for wall lights and, not least, they also look great. In the case of open riser stairs, you can also use light sources that are installed beneath the treads. Sometimes it’s also a good idea to add LED rope lighting under the handrails because that will make the stairs even brighter.

A staircase with built-in lights under each stepPin

When planning the lighting of the stairs, always think of potential glare.

This is what you want to avoid at all costs because glare can block seniors’ vision and lead to falls. You can reduce glare by thorough planning, avoiding direct line of sight to the light source, using matte paint, and eliminating shiny surfaces.

FYI – We have a detailed article about fall prevention in the elderly full of simple and helpful tips that can be really useful for every senior.

2. Install Anti-Slip Tapes or Carpet

Wood, laminate, ceramic, or glass tile stairs are slippery, and therefore hazardous for the elderly. However, you can make them safe easily without spending a fortune.

One option would be to securely carpet the treads or lay a carpet runner on the stairs. You should always use carpet material that is not slippery (avoid polyester and olefin). This is how you can do it:

YouTube video

Another, easier to implement solution is to install anti-slip tapes on the treads or use rubber stair tread covers.

Anti-slip paints are not recommended for stairs: often, they make the treads even more slippery than they were before. Moreover, they’re hard to remove.

Seniors sometimes have a hard time recognizing the edges of the treads. Missing them often leads to falling. To avoid these kinds of accidents make sure stair nosings are clearly visible. If they’re not, mark them with a brightly-colored stripe.

You can further enhance safety by wearing non-skid socks, slippers, or shoes, and avoid footwear with high heels and smooth soles.

Are Carpeted Stairs Safe for Seniors?

While it’s true that carpeted stairs are usually less slippery (it depends on the carpet material) they can be tripping hazards if the carpet is loose and not installed properly.

Carpets are not the best solution for stairs with short treads as they can further shrink their depth making them more hazardous for seniors. Another disadvantage is that carpets can make it harder for seniors to recognize the edges of the treads. It’s especially true for patterned carpets.

Therefore, if you want to use a carpet, choose one that’s not slippery and has a single color. Also, make sure you tightly secure it to the treads.

FYI – We’ve collected 70+ important home safety tips here. Check them out if you want to improve home safety.

3. Add Stair Handrails

Sturdy handrails are a must. They’re essential for making stairs safer for seniors and they play a very important role in fall prevention. It’s particularly true in the case of elderly people with balance and mobility issues.

It’s a good practice to install handrails on both sides of the staircase from the bottom to the top.

The height of a handrail should be between 34 inches and 38 inches. Make sure there’s enough space between the handrail and the wall. This will allow seniors to grab the handrail properly.

Never forget to check for stability: the handrails must withstand the weight of an adult without any damage.

If you’re interested in installing handrails by yourself, check out this article for further details.

An L-shaped handrail attached to a white wallPin

As an alternative, you can use StairSteady.

StairSteady is a relatively new kind of stair climbing aid. It’s the combination of a fixed handrail and a sliding handle that can be moved freely only when it’s pushed. When pulling it the activated lock prevents backward sliding and the device provides support.

StairSteady helps seniors during both coming down and climbing the stairs.

4. Use a Stair Chair Lift

Stairlifts are very effective stair climbing aids for the elderly. They’re recommended for seniors with severe mobility or balance issues who want to use the stairs in a safe way.

A stairlift is a device that lifts you up and down stairs while you’re in a sitting position. Usually, they have a built-in battery, so in case of a power outage, they continue working.

There are basically two popular types of stairlifts. Straight rail stairlifts and curved rail stairlifts that are custom-made and more complex, therefore cost more. The rails are usually attached to the treads of the staircase.

Using a stairlift is a highly effective way to make stairs safe for seniors as it reduces the chance of falling to almost zero.

How Much Does a Stairlift Cost?

A stairlift is not cheap, probably it’s the most expensive solution when it comes to stair safety. It costs between $2,000 and $12,000, depending on the type of the stairlift.

Stairlifts with a more complex rail structure usually cost more than $7,000. Yet, when your elderly loved ones are not able to use the stairs safely or climbing is too exhausting for them, a stairlift can make their life much easier.

5. Consider Installing Stair Safety Gates for Seniors with Dementia

Installing a stair safety gate to prevent seniors with dementia from climbing the stairs can be a solution in certain situations. Yet, these gates are not suitable for all elderly people with cognitive impairment: some of them may try to climb over the gate, especially if they don’t understand the situation.

This can lead to accidents and falls you wanted to avoid by installing the gate. If you use gates, you want your elderly loved ones to use the ground floor only. This way you can be sure they won’t roll down the stairs.

6. Eliminate Tripping Hazards

When it comes to improving stair safety, eliminating tripping hazards is essential. Many seniors suffer from some degree of balance issues. They can’t raise their legs high enough and they step small.

Thus, uneven surfaces and obstacles on the treads can lead to falls and accidents. Always make sure there are no tripping hazards (such as wrinkled or loose rugs, cords, shoes, etc.) at the bottom and the top of the staircase. Also, keep the way to the stairs clear without any clutter.

7. Make the Edges Visible

Seniors often suffer from visual impairments, therefore it’s very important to make the edges of the steps clearly visible. Usually, it’s a good idea to use contrasting colors, for instance, you can paint the edges of the steps red or any other color that is clearly different from the color of the treads.

As an alternative, you can use colored stripes to get the same result.

More Tips on Stair Safety for Seniors

  • Encourage your loved ones to move slowly on the stairs, take one step at a time and always hold on to the handrail. They shouldn’t hurry, even if there’s someone waiting for them. If they use any walking aid, extra caution is required.
  • Don’t leave or store anything on the stairs. Any obstacle increases the risk of falling.
  • In the case of steep stairs using a stair assistance step (similar to a cane but has a rectangular bottom part) might help to make climbing safer for the elderly.
  • Using a walker on stairs requires extreme caution, so make sure your elderly loved one knows exactly how to use it safely. If in doubt, provide or ask for assistance.
  • If your loved ones have a portable medical alert device encourage them to always take it with them. This way, in case of an emergency, they can ask for help immediately. Some models come with a fall-detection feature that further enhances safety. For more details check out our article about medical alert watches.

Photo: Flickr

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About the Author

James Mora is the founder of DailyHomeSafety. He is a home improvement expert, contractor, avid DIYer, and security manager. He is passionate about home repairs, remodeling, and teaching. Read More