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For many of us, stairs are just another area of the home or a public space. However, as we get older, stairs can pose a serious fall risk and injuries, even death is possible as a result of this. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we place a focus on stair safety for senior users.
What are the Main Causes of Stair Falls?
There are several risk factors that could increase the chances of a senior having a fall on the stairs. The more risk factors that apply to any individual, the higher the chances of them falling. According to statistics from the CDC, as many as one in every four American seniors experiences a fall each year. By understanding the most common causes of stair falls, we can implement ways to prevent them.
As we age, our bodies may not perform as well as they used to. Seniors may have developed conditions such as arthritis which can affect their mobility. Things like pain in the joints as a result of extra weight on them while climbing and descending the stairs can cause people to fall. Did you know that you put as much as 2.5x the amount of weight on your knees when climbing the stairs as you do when walking on a flat surface?
Moreover, many seniors struggle to maintain their balance which can be very challenging when moving up or down stairs. This could be a result of weaker muscles, medication, or something else.
Some older adults may also find that they are not as flexible, which could make it easy to misplace their feet, resulting in a slip. While an active, healthy adult might be able to respond to this quickly and regain their footing, someone with declined physical health would probably not be able to and would fall.
When recovering from an existing injury, it can be more of a challenge to climb the stairs for a senior. With things like weakened muscles, pain, and interference with balance, there is a much higher risk of falling when using the stairs.
There may be ongoing conditions such as bunions or ingrown toenails that cause pain and make it more difficult to walk which could also contribute to safety on the stairs.
Similarly to an injury, those who have recently undergone surgery may be at a higher risk of experiencing a stair fall. This is largely due to the fact that the body is not as strong or physically able to tackle the stairs without losing balance. Some people may also have problems lifting their legs to step up the stairs which could cause them to trip.
If you have an older loved one whose health is in pretty good shape then you could be forgiven for thinking that there aren’t any risks associated with climbing or descending the stairs. However, if the person has any problems with their vision then this can limit their ability to detect trip hazards.
Many older adults, including as many as half of all over 75 year olds in America, have cataracts. This is a condition in which the lens of the eye becomes cloudy. It can affect your vision, making it blurry, and can eventually lead to blindness.
If the senior has been prescribed eyeglasses or other forms of treatment but does not use them while using the stairs, this can further contribute to their fall risk.
Medication Side Effects
Drugs like opioids, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and sedatives might be necessary to maintain good health as an older adult. However, a lot of these medications also have side effects that could increase the risk of a stair fall.
Things like loss of balance, dizziness, fatigue, and low blood pressure could all contribute to a fall on the stairs. However, if you are concerned that your older loved one is experiencing these symptoms and may be at risk of falling, you should consult their doctor and never suggest that they stop taking their medication without professional advice.
Tips to Make Stairs Safer for Seniors
Stairs are a common fixture in many homes and care settings. While there might be the possibility of relocating to a house without stairs, this isn’t always possible. In order for our seniors to age in place, we need to make their existing residence as safe as possible. Here are some things you can do to improve their safety and lower the risk of a fall.
1. Install Handrails on Both Sides
You have probably noticed that most homes have at least one handrail on the side of the stairs. However, this may not be enough for older adults who are a little unsteady on their feet. In this instance, it is a better and safer idea to install a handrail on both sides of the stairs.
Once you have installed the handrails, it’s essential to maintain them, regularly checking any loose screws and tightening where necessary. Moreover, you should place the handrails at the right height, while elbow height is ideal, this will vary depending on the height of the user. It’s also important to choose handrails that are comfortable and easy to grip for the elderly person.
2. Ensure the Staircase is Well-Lit
Older adults with vision problems find it difficult to differentiate between stairs, but even those with good vision may struggle in low light. This is why it is essential to ensure adequate lighting on the staircase at all times.
We understand that the senior might not want lights beaming through the house all through the night, which is why motion-activated lights are a great idea. As the senior approaches the lights, they illuminate allowing them to better navigate their way up and down the stairs. When using these lights, make sure that they are applied all along the staircase so that every step is lit up.
You may wish to consider using LED lights as the bulbs tend to last much longer, which is a far more cost-effective option.
3. Fit Stair Treads or Non-Slip Strips
Depending on the material of the stairs, the floor underfoot could be slippery. Things like hardwood can be particularly dangerous, but this is a common flooring choice as it looks good. But your senior doesn’t necessarily need to swap interior fashion for safety as things like non-slip strips and stair treads can drastically improve the traction of a slippery staircase.
There are some excellent clear stair treads that can be applied to wooden stairs without spoiling the appearance. However, if you want, there are also patterned treads that can add a little personality to what would ordinarily be a purely practical device.
There are many other options for improving the traction of the stairs, including carpet and rubber treads, non-slip paint, and tape.
4. Add Color Contrast Strips
For older adults that have poor eyesight, it helps to be able to better differentiate between steps as, for some people, they seem to blend into one another. An excellent way of doing this is with the simple addition of color contrast strips. When dark colors are set alongside light colors, it can make it so much easier to tell two steps apart.
You don’t need to reinstall the entire staircase since these strips can be applied to the existing steps, better showing the edge of each one. You could even paint the stairs in contrasting colors, as long as there is a clear difference between steps.
5. Remove or Replace Loose Rugs
One of the biggest dangers on the stairs for seniors is carpet runners and loose rugs. Since the stairs are a high-traffic area, carpet here tends to wear much more quickly. When this happens, it can become slippery.
Loose rugs and carpet runners can serve as a trip hazard, and if they aren’t securely stuck down, any curled edges could also cause a senior to trip. It is therefore important to remove these hazards entirely or replace carpets and rugs as soon as you notice them beginning to wear.
6. Install Stair Aids
If the senior is having difficulty using the stairs, then it might be worth considering using a stair aid. There are several options depending on the circumstances, and while this might be a slightly more expensive solution, it’s one that almost guarantees safety.
Stair lifts are great for people who want a fast solution that isn’t going to break the bank. These are moving chairs that are attached to the staircase and for a simple design on a straight staircase, you might be able to have all of the work done in as little as a day. But there are also stair lifts designed for curved stairs, they just take a little longer to install.
What’s more, there are stair lifts for both indoor and outdoor use, so no matter what you’re looking for, there’s likely a solution.
If there are other people in the home then there’s no need to worry about a stair lift getting in the way since the seat will fold up when the lift is not in use.
Wheelchair Platform Lift
Some seniors rely on the use of a wheelchair but getting this up and down stairs can be quite the challenge. Wheelchair platform lifts offer a safe and easy way to move between floors, and while they do require an upfront investment, they’re invaluable for people who wish to age in place.
Most of the time, a wheelchair platform lift is installed on outside steps leading up to the front door, for example. Some steps may be too steep to install a ramp, so a wheelchair lift is a great alternative to this.
These powered aids allow the person to wheel their wheelchair onto the platform before safely maneuvering them between floors.
Another excellent solution for outdoor steps is a ramp. These are perfect for wheelchair users but can also be used for seniors on their feet to reduce the need to step up and down.
When choosing a ramp, it is imperative that you choose the right length. If you do not then the ramp will be very steep which can be just as dangerous as trying to go up and down stairs. You should also consider the ramp material as there are lots to choose from including wood, steel, concrete, and aluminum, among others. Metal ramps will require far less maintenance when used outdoors.
For some people, a portable ramp is an ideal solution. For example, if the senior spends a lot of time out and about in their wheelchair. These ramps fit nicely into the trunk of the car and can be taken out and unfolded as needed.
7. Remove Any Trip Hazards
Many of us are guilty of using the stairs to store items for when we are ready to go upstairs and take them with us. But if you have a senior living in the home, this may be a habit you want to get out of since these items can serve as a tripping hazard.
You should always make sure that there are no cords, cables, or electrical wires running across the stairs. Essentially, this part of the home should have absolutely no clutter.
Also, think about what is at the top and bottom of the staircase. If there are any loose rugs, these could cause the senior to slip. Furthermore, ill-placed furniture could get in the way or cause the person to trip as they approach the staircase.
8. Wear Non-Slip Footwear
As well as using non-slip treads on the stairs, you might consider wearing non-slip footwear. Older adults should always wear appropriate footwear both inside and outside the home and this is very important when dealing with stairs.
You’ll need to find shoes that properly support the senior’s feet as well as check that the sole has good traction and is considered non-slip. The shoes should be sturdy but also feel comfortable as if they don’t, the senior may be less likely to wear them.
9. Take Breaks Between Landings
As they say, slow and steady wins the race. It’s far better for a senior to take a little longer to get up and down the stairs than it is for them to rush and potentially hurt themselves. Where possible, having a rest space is a great idea.
If there is a small landing in the middle of the staircase, you can use this to place a chair where the elderly person can rest for a few minutes before tackling the rest of the stairs. Since fatigue is a culprit of stair falls, this is imperative.
10. Take Your Reading Glasses Off
Reading glasses are designed for exactly what you’d expect; reading and other activities that require close up focus. However, they’re not designed for things like navigating staircases, so you should always remove them before doing so. If you wear bifocals, then it is essential that you adjust your glasses before tackling the stairs, as there has been research that demonstrates bifocals could cause you to misjudge your step.
How to Climb Stairs with an Injured Leg
If you have sustained an injury to your leg then climbing the stairs can be both difficult and dangerous. But using the correct technique can go a long way in improving your safe use of the stairs.
Before you even start with the first step, you will need to assess the area to make sure that there are no obstacles or hazards. If there are, have these removed before you try to ascend the stairs.
You should put the crutch on the side of the handrail to one side as you won’t need this to climb. If the staircase has two rails, then you can choose which side to discard. As you move up the stairs, make sure that you remain facing forward as this position ensures the best balance.
You’ll use one hand on the handrail while using the other to steady yourself with a crutch or walking cane. Make sure that you lead with your best foot when moving up the stairs but lead with your injured foot when you come back down. Place your foot on the step first, then your crutch before lastly placing your second foot down to move up. When you’re on the way down, place the cane on the step followed by your weakest foot and finally your good foot.
How to Climb Stairs Using a Mobility Aid
We have briefly touched on how to use the stairs with a crutch or mobility aid, but let’s take a look at this in a little more detail.
- Position yourself as close to the bottom step as possible and take hold of the handrail on one side, although some people may need to use both crutches in the event that there isn’t a handrail. Your therapist will have given you information on how to do this safely.
- Place your crutch onto the first step with your weakest leg out in front of you.
- Put your weight into your walking aid while placing your good leg on the step in front of you.
- Now, simply repeat the steps.
When you are coming back down the stairs using a walking aid, you will need to be just as mindful. You will use the same technique, only this time, you will lead with your bad leg. Always make sure that you remove any obstacles and ask for help carrying your second crutch where needed. That said, you can carry it horizontally if you don’t have someone with you. Again, this is something that your physical therapist will teach you how to do.
How to Assist Someone with Climbing Stairs
If you are providing care for a senior, then there will likely be times that you have to help them navigate the stairs. How you assist will depend on the situation.
Wheelchair Bound Seniors
For seniors that use a wheelchair, you will need to use some kind of stair aid. If the person can easily get in and out of their wheelchair then a stair lift might be a viable option. However, if they are unable to do this then you may need to use a portable stair climber. These are battery-powered devices designed to move the wheelchair up and down stairs without the need for a transfer.
You will receive information from the stair climber supplier on how to use the product, but there are a few important things to keep in mind. Primarily, you’ll need to make sure that you remove any additional weight or items from the wheelchair and ensure that the back of the wheelchair faces the stairs at all times.
Always make sure that you check the equipment before use and perform regular maintenance to keep it in good working order.
It can also be helpful to explain the process to the senior as many people have a fear of falling when using these types of devices.
Non-Wheelchair Bound Seniors
If the senior does not require a wheelchair, then a gait belt is an excellent way to help them get up the stairs. These belts are attached around the waist of the user so that it is snug but not too tight or uncomfortable. Belts that are slightly thicker tend to be more comfortable and won’t dig into the skin should you have to make any sudden movements.
As you approach the stairs with your loved one, make sure that there is a handrail on one side and they can use a cane on the other. You will stand behind your loved one to the side on which they are holding their cane. They will then be able to move up the stairs, one at a time, while you support them using the gait belt.
Helping After an Injury
If a senior has sustained an injury and needs help getting up and down the stairs, one of the most important things to remember is to never walk alongside them. This can crowd them but can also mean that you are not as easily able to assist them if they slip. Standing behind them is the best option.
You will need to remain at least one or two steps behind them, supporting the pelvis as they move. However, when they are coming back down the stairs, be sure to stand one or two steps in front of them and provide support at the chest or shoulder.