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8 Ways to Make the Stairs Safer at Home

Smart changes that reduce the risk of injury as you age

spinner image Grandmother and her female medical physiotherapist walking down the stairs
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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.

2. Light them up

spinner image wood stairs with lights illuminating
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Poor lighting has been associated with stair falls among people of all ages, studies show. Yet stairwells in many older homes are less well-lit than the rest of the residence.

Install bright lights, ideally with LED bulbs, to make it easy to see where to put your feet. It’s especially important to illuminate the top and bottom steps because that’s where most falls occur.

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Make sure there is a light switch at the top and bottom of each staircase or have one installed. “You don’t want to go upstairs, realize you left the light off but then you can’t turn it on because the switch is at the bottom,” says Greg Hartley, a board-certified geriatric clinical specialist in Miami and the vice president of the board of APTA Geriatrics.

Another easy way to boost lighting in your stairwell is to wall-mount wireless motion-sensing night-lights at foot and ankle levels, Hartley recommends.

3. Enhance visual cues

With the visual challenges that come with age, it can be difficult to distinguish individual steps, especially when descending stairs that are uniform in color, Hartley observes.

As we age, “depth perception becomes more difficult, accommodating to light and dark becomes more difficult,” Hartley says. “Especially if you have stairs with carpet that’s a light beige or white color, there can be no visual separation as to where the step is.”

Hartley suggests adding reflective tape or colored paint to the edge of each step so that you have a clear demarcation of where each one ends as you descend.

Another improvement that can help when ascending stairs is to paint the vertical portion of wooden steps white or a contrasting color. That can help you distinguish the risers from the treads, or the part of the step that is meant to be stepped on.

4. Make step height and depth consistent

To prevent tripping, the horizontal and vertical surfaces of stairs should be uniform, not different widths and heights, Smith says.

A common problem in many older homes, however, is a top step that is wider than the rest, Smith says, because some builders don’t put a nosing — the section of the tread that overhangs a stair — on the top landing. As a result, people place their feet too far forward on the second or third step, potentially leading to a fall.

If you have a wider top step, consider hiring a handyman or carpenter to add a nosing to the landing. It’s a simple fix that can significantly increase safety, Smith says.

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5. Eliminate the bottom-step illusion

Some older homes have a bottom step that blends in with the landing rather than the rest of the staircase, creating a danger for those who mistakenly believe they are stepping onto a flat landing. This design defect is so common that experts have a name for it: the bottom-of-flight illusion.

Consider making changes to distinguish the bottom step from the landing, such as marking it with a rubber tread or anti-slip tape, or upgrading it so that it matches the rest of the steps.

6. Upgrade your handrail

spinner image woman holds handrail while climbing stairs
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The handrail is an often-overlooked safety component, Smith says, that studies consistently show can help with balance and prevent a fall on stairs.

Unfortunately, Smith notes, handrails in many homes are more decorative than functional. If they are large, bulky, rectangular or ornately shaped, they can be hard to grip. The safest rails are rounded, and “your hand should be able to completely encircle it when you grasp it.”

For extra safety, consider installing rails on both sides of stairs, Hartley suggests. This will help if you develop balance issues or if you ever feel more comfortable using the handrail on one side than the other (say, after knee surgery).

Rails should run the entire length of a staircase, be installed 30 to 36 inches from the floor and be securely attached to studs in the wall so they don’t rip out if you put a lot of weight on them.

7. Clear the clutter

It’s essential to keep stairways clear of objects to reduce the chance of tripping. It’s common to see throw rugs on stairway landings, but they can be a hazard and should be removed, Hartley cautions. “People leave stuff on the stairs as a resting spot for things to take upstairs. That’s OK to do, but make sure it doesn’t accumulate so much that it gets cluttered.”

8. Consider a stair lift

spinner image Woman sitting on stair lift at home
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If you find that your stairs are becoming increasingly difficult to navigate, you may want to consider installing a motorized lift, Larson says.

Prices vary from $2,000 to $10,000, with higher costs if you have a landing or a turn in your staircase. Sometimes you can get reimbursed for part of the expense through insurance, Larson says. He recommends calling your area’s agency on aging to ask for recommendations.

Installation can typically be completed in a day, but note that the stairway must be wide enough to accommodate the chair while allowing other people to use the stairs with the chair in place. If you sell the home, the lift can usually be removed without any major damage to the staircase. In most cases, all that is required is filling some screw holes on the steps. ​

Video: How to Help Loved Ones Who Cannot Safely Use the Stairs

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