How To Make Stairs Safer For The Elderly
As we get older, the simple act of going up and down stairs can become more difficult. If you’re wondering how to make stairs safer for the elderly, then this is the article for you.
Our lead physiotherapist Nancy is going to take you through ways you can help your parents feel more secure on the stairs. This includes her favourite mobility aids for stairs (inside and outside) and simple home safety tips to make life easier for your parents, and give you peace of mind.
Why Do People Have Difficulty Going Up And Down Stairs?
As we get older, people can need more help getting up and down stairs. One major reason is because we all lose muscle mass as we age (we start losing it from the age of 30).
If we don’t continue to exercise, we experience leg weakness which makes lifting our legs and pushing up to go up and lowering ourselves down stairs difficult. Especially when the stairs are steep without any assistance.
This reduction in muscle affects our strength and balance and subsequently confidence, and is a common cause of older adults people falling down the stairs. If they trip or overbalance, they can’t respond as quickly as they used to, which is why anything we can do with preventing falls and making stairs safer for the elderly is so important.
Certain conditions can also affect our ability to go up and down stairs easily. For example, arthritis of the hip and knee can make bending and flexing the knee less fluid. And people living with Parkinson’s disease or in stroke recovery can have a one-sided body weakness, meaning that they need to amend how they go up and down stairs.
Elderly Stairs Assistance
If you’re assisting someone up and down stairs, you need to know what to do. Here’s what Nancy recommends to make stairs safer.
For trouble walking up stairs, they need to lead with their stronger leg or non injured leg and put this up onto the next step first, holding the rail as they do so. Then they use the power in this leg to push up, along with their arm to pull up on the rail.
For difficulty going down stairs, they should put their weaker leg down onto the step first while holding on the the rail. Keeping their weight on the stronger leg, they will have more control lowering themselves down on to the next step using the arm holding on to the rail as they do so.
When walking upstairs with someone who is at risk of falling on the stairs, walk behind them and slightly to the side so that you can push them forwards on to the step if they lose their balance.
When going downstairs, if you feel safe to do so then walk in front of and to the side of them. You will be walking backwards and looking back at them – this way, you can push your parent back up on to the step if they lose their balance.
Never walk directly in front or behind them or try to catch someone falling on the stairs. If possible, push them away from you on to the steps to stop them from falling. To read more about preventing falls check out this article.
Going Up And Down Stairs On Bottom
If your parent finds navigating the stairs difficult on foot, they may choose to go up and down stairs on their bottom. If they’re able to get up from this position safely and feel more secure doing this, then you don’t necessarily need to change it. However, you may be interested to find out about the stair aids for added stair safety below.
When it comes to mobility aids for stairs, there’s a real range – from rails through to stair lifts. It can be hard to know what to choose, so we hope the below helps you understand the best stair aid for your loved one.
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Whilst most stairs have handrails on one side, they don’t always extend the full length of the staircase. Fill the gap with a smaller secure grab rail, or get a new longer length mopstick handrail like this.
It fits directly into the wall with secure brackets and offers that support for people who have trouble going up stairs.
If your parent is weaker on one side of their body, then they may benefit from having two safety handrails (one on either side) to provide extra stair safety as they go up and down.
Two stable rails can also provide more stair support to people who are less balanced on their feet, so them feel more confident to keep living independently.
If the staircase is wide and your parent can’t reach both handrails at the same time, then either encourage them to use the rail on their weaker side. Or if they need more support, to side step up and down the stairs holding onto one rail.
Have you ever wondered what happens when the handrail stops and your parent still needs to navigate some stairs? A newel rail is designed to fit around corners (for example, when the handrail stops at the top or bottom of the stairs).
Your parent can use the newel post rail to turn 90 degrees around the banister post and get safely on or off the stairs without having to let go.
This innovative stair grab rail is available in right and left hand, depending on the side of the stairs it is needed (and it could be worth getting one for the top and bottom).
What do you do if your mum and dad has steps leading up to their front door, or in their garden? Install some safety rails for outside steps of course!
I like these sturdy grab bars. Made from wrought iron, they come in various heights and provide that extra balance and security over a few steps outside.
if your parent only needs to go up or down one step outside, then they could use their outdoor walker for support. Placing this onto secure ground before going up or down the step.
If your parent has dementia then you may not want them using the stairs unassisted. If this is the case, then a standard gate won’t cut it – you need a tall stair gate that is metal or strong plastic and can withstand their weight and strength.
Please note though that some people with cognitive impairments may find a stair gate confusing and try to climb over it, so please use them with caution.
A walking stick can increase stability on the stairs, and can be a good option if putting in a second safety rail isn’t possible.
The golden rule to using a walking stick correctly on the stairs is to put the stick down first onto the step you’re moving onto. This gives you extra support and will help to decrease risk of falls.
Climbing stairs with crutches isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it is possible to master it! Your parent needs to remember to always have a hand free to hold on to the handrail.
The other hand will be holding both crutches – one as usual and one held horizontally. This is if partial weight bearing is possible – if not, going up and down stairs on the bottom or getting a stair lift are options. They can find out more detail on finding the best crutch in our article on walking aids.
Wheeled walking frames (like this one) are great for getting around the house, but please don’t use them on the stairs. They will be cumbersome, won’t fit and can cause your parent to fall.
If your parent uses a walking frame, the best thing to do is get one for downstairs and upstairs, and leave it at the stairs. Then to get up and down stairs safely, they can use any of the methods explained above. This wheeled walker is a reliable and inexpensive option to have on both floors.
I also quickly want to mention stair walkers which some elderly people use to climb up and down stairs. I personally don’t recommend them due to them being a potential fall risk.
When writing about how to make stairs safer for the elderly, we have to mention a stair lift! These can be a fantastic way to easily get from A to B, but they are expensive and there are some things to consider.
Firstly, the person using a stair lift needs to have the cognitive ability to operate it and understand how it works. This mobility aid is really for someone who is going to need it long term, and wants to stay living at home – it’s not a quick fix rehab piece of equipment.
You can get a straight stair lift or one for curved stairs. Like I said, they’re not a cheap option as are made bespoke for your stairs but can be life changing. My preferred brand is Acorn stair lifts.
Tips For Stair Safety At Home
Did you know that 1 in 3 adults over 65 will fall over at least once a year? This can shake your confidence as well as break bones, and as a physiotherapist I’m passionate about helping people prevent falls.
As well as the mobility aids and recommendations for preventing falls mentioned above, there are some simple tips that you and your parents can follow to make stairs safer.
- Remove clutter from stairs: It can be easy to place the laundry or other household items on the stairs to remind you to take them with you. But these items limit space on the stairs and your parent could easily trip over them (especially if they have difficulty climbing stairs and leg weakness). Make sure that the stairs are clear of clutter and there’s a clear route up and down.
- Improve staircase lighting: As we get older, our vision can start to decline. Good lighting will help your parents stay safe on the stairs, so they can see exactly where they’re going (especially if the toilet is on another floor and they need to hurry there quickly). Replace any bulbs that have blown with higher voltage, brighter bulbs. Or change a single hanging lampshade for spot lights.
- Invest in non slip slippers for the elderly: Backless slippers are a no-no in my book. They slide about and cause you to be unsteady on the feet – they’re a real cause of falls. Make the stairs safer and get some velcro slippers from Cosy Feet which stay firmly in place (and are extremely comfy!).
We want to help our parents stay safe at home for as long as possible, but the reality is that every year there are thousands of elderly falls on stairs. If downsizing and moving to a flat or bungalow isn’t an option, then hopefully these ideas for how to make stairs safer for the elderly will help.