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If you’re one of the many older adults who want to stay in their homes as they age, you may need to make some changes. One of the first places to consider should be the stairs.
Whether it’s the flight down to the basement, the staircase leading to second-floor bedrooms or the wooden walkway from your deck to your yard, stairs can pose a hazard.
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Each year more than 1 million Americans injure themselves on stairs — that’s an average of about 3,000 injuries per day, or one every 30 seconds — and the risk increases dramatically with age, according to a 2017 study that examined emergency room visits.
Stairs are a high-risk area for falls, no matter what your age, says Gary Smith, M.D., lead author of the 2017 study and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. But as you get older, he explains, changes in your coordination, strength and vision can make navigating a stairway more challenging.
Smith’s study found that people older than 60 are six times more likely than younger people to be hospitalized after a stair-related injury. Older adults may have conditions and comorbidities that increase their risk of injury if they fall, he says. If you have osteoporosis, for example, you’re more likely to break a bone. If you take an anticoagulant, as many older adults do, you could develop intracranial bleeding if you hit your head.
More than half of American homes contain stairs, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. In some parts of the country, like New England and the Middle Atlantic, as many as 90 percent of homes are multistory.
Because falls can be devastating for older adults, it’s important to be proactive and look for ways to preemptively mitigate your risk, says Eric B. Larson, M.D., senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute and coauthor of Enlightened Aging: Building Resilience for a Long, Active Life.
The good news is that you can lower your risk of injury on your stairs with a few simple design and environmental changes. Here are some ways experts suggest to make your stairs safer.
1. Add traction
When Larson’s team researched the reasons older adults fall, they found that most falls are the result of slipping, not tripping. So it’s critical to ensure that the surface of your steps isn’t slippery.
If you have smooth steps made of wood or tile, Larson recommends applying something to the surface of each one to add friction and traction. A variety of products are available, including rubber/abrasive stair treads and anti-slip tape strips you can apply or skid-resistant floor treatments that are painted on.
Low-pile carpeting is another option, Larson says, but it must be tightly fitted so it doesn’t cause you to trip; consider installation by a professional to ensure it is securely attached.
No matter which option you choose, remember to wear shoes or slippers with a rigid rubber sole anytime you climb up or down stairs, Larson advises. When people are walking in bare feet or stocking feet, they are more likely to slip.