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Stair Safety Tips for Seniors

How to Prevent Falling Down Stairs

Senior woman walking down stairs. 

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Once you start having trouble using stairs, it seems like you encounter them everywhere you go. They're fairly easy to sidestep in public buildings where elevators are an option, but they're a lot harder to avoid in your own home. Unfortunately falls are the top cause of injury for seniors, so using the stairs as safely as possible is of the utmost importance.

Seniors fall on stairs for a variety of reasons, but health, environmental, and behavioral reasons the most common. Health factors include reduced vision, weakness, drowsiness, loss of balance, and an inactive lifestyle. Nonexistent or defective handrails, poor lighting, and substandard tread surfaces are all environmental factors that can lead to a fall. Behavioral factors include lack of concentration, carrying objects while using stairs, and unsuitable footwear. 

Luckily, there are a number of ways to combat the causes for falls and make your stairs safer to use:

Stair Safety Tips for Seniors

Clear the Deck

Keep the top and bottom of stairways clear of loose rugs - they're a tripping hazard. Clear your stairway of any objects (such as books, shoes, etc.) and make sure that any furniture on landings doesn't block the pathway.

Light Em Up

Stairs should never have lower illumination levels than adjacent areas - that's just a recipe for disaster. Use low-glare overhead lighting and install a stair lighting kit to ensure each step is distinctly visible. Verify there are light switches at both the bottom and the top of the stairs; if there aren't, have them installed.

Tread Lightly

If your stairs are made of a smooth material (wood, painted, tile, etc), install rubber or abrasive treads or anti-slip tape for proper footing and grip. If your stairs are carpeted, be sure the carpeting is securely installed and not sagging or loose. The carpet should be tight against the nosing of each step. No matter what your stairs are made of, if the nosings can't be clearly seen, paint a contrasting color stripe on each tread.

Hold On

Handrails are strongly recommended - in fact, it's suggested they be installed on both sides of the stairwell when possible. Position handrails at adult elbow height and attach them securely to walls and posts. You should be able to put your entire weight on the handrail without damaging the handrail, wall, or post. An adult must be able to wrap their hand completely around the handrails. Extend the handrails the full length of the stairs - including beyond the top and bottom.

Keep an Eye on It

Proper lighting won't be much help if the reason you can't see your stairs because your eyes aren't what they used to be.

Falling Down Stair Prevention

When climbing the stairs:

  • Remove your reading glasses.
  • If you have prescription glasses for distance vision, always wear them when using the stairs.
  • Take additional care when wearing bifocal or progressive eyeglasses. Adjust the position of your glasses on your head so you can see the stairs clearly. It's also a good idea to get your vision checked annually in order to keep up with the changing health of your eyes.

Heart & Sole

Footwear influences balance and the subsequent risk of slips, trips, and falls by altering somatosensory feedback to the foot and ankle and modifying frictional conditions
at the shoe/floor interface. Walking indoors barefoot or in socks and walking indoors or outdoors in high-heel shoes have been shown to increase the risk of falls in older people. Other footwear characteristics such as heel collar height, sole hardness, and tread and heel geometry also influence measures of balance and gait.

Because many older people wear suboptimal shoes, maximizing safe shoe use may offer an effective fall prevention strategy. Based on findings of a systematic literature review, older people should wear shoes with low heels and firm slip-resistant soles both inside and outside the home. Future research should investigate the potential benefits of tread sole shoes for preventing slips and whether shoes with high collars or flared soles can enhance balance when challenging tasks are undertaken.

Take Your Time

There's no need to rush down the stairs. A phone call or visitor at the door can wait. Be alert, deliberate, and take your time to get down the stairs safely. Hold on to the handrails and be extra cautious when there is a transition between angled, shorter treads on winding stairways and rectangular treads.

At some point in our lives, stairs become an issue for all of us. That doesn't mean we have to stop using them entirely, it just means taking some extra precautions to make sure we do so safely.

Author Liz Greene hails from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. She's a lover of all things geek and is happiest when cuddling with her dogs and catching up on the latest Marvel movies. You can follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene

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