When we are children, stairs are often a place to play by sliding down on an oversized leather-bottomed pillow, a cardboard box, or just plain old slick windbreaker pants. When we are adolescents or in our twenties, seeing a woman descend a staircase in a lovely dress still has Scarlett O'Hara-Rhett Butler romantic associations. Yet as we age, the stairs can be transformed into a formidable foe. Stairs in the home of an elderly person are a common location for an injury-sustaining fall to occur.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than half of all falls happen inside the home, and another study takes it further, claiming that between 10 and 15 percent of those falls occur on stairs.
Most of these in-home falls can be prevented by taking precautions to limit the risk factors, such as making the stairs safer. Here are a few practical ways to make the stairs safer in the home of a senior.
Structural Reasons Why Stairs are a Fall Risk Factor
To make the stairs safer, you must first identify stair hazards. The Community Health Research Unit at the University of Ottawa conducted a study of over 700 staircases throughout a Canadian community, including those of over 500 seniors still living independently. They sought to gain a better understanding of what makes stairs dangerous. Here is a recap of what they found.
Even stairs on the same staircase can vary in dimension...
Stairs are not all uniform in height, depth, or incline. Stairs that are taller than 7 inches are more dangerous. Stairs that are not 11 inches or deeper, from the edge of the stair to the base of the next one, are also more dangerous. Even stairs on the same staircase can vary in dimension which can lead to common foot placement error and falling.
Stairs that are "open backed" also increase the risk for falling as they can cause visual disturbances and exacerbate perception issues. Stairs that are more than 10 steps high, without a landing placed in the climb, are a large risk factor due to fatigue and the distance to fall.
Solutions to Fix the Structural Risk Factor
Changing the structure of a staircase is not an easy fix. It would require a fairly large commitment to either hire a professional or set aside the time and resources to effectively make the stairs safer. Handrails are relatively easy to install and do provide some element of safety that wasn't there before. They should be installed on both sides of the staircase walls.
Another consideration would be to replace any high fiber carpet known to be slippery with a tightly woven carpet with short fibers. If replacing or repairing a staircase or putting in backs to "open backed" stairs is not an option, the next best solution, and one that should be implemented either way, is installing good lighting.
The Role Lighting Plays
A combination of degrading eye sight, prescription drugs with mobility side effects, and a general lack of good lighting on staircases make stairs particularly precarious. By adding additional lighting to the staircase, you will be providing the best resource for the senior in your life to be able to make better hand and foot placement choices. If adding more light fixtures is not a viable option at the moment, color coded safety strips on each stair can help provide a similar effect; particularly on the first and last steps of the staircase. The first and last steps are a very common step for a fall to occur because they are simply missed.
If there are not two light switches, one at the top and another at the bottom of the stairs, seriously consider hiring an electrician to install one them. Many seniors are on a fixed income and try to save money on electric bills. If there is no other way to turn off or on lighting on the stairs, they will most always be inclined to leave the lights off.
Falling is caused by a combination of risk factors. Taking steps to eliminate as many risk factors as possible is always in a senior's favor.
University of Ottawa. Steps to Safer Stairs. Available at http://aix1.uottawa.ca/~nedwards/chru/english/pdf/SafeStairsOct5.pdf. Retrieved February 17th, 2016.
CDC. Important Facts about Falls. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Falls/adultfalls.html. Retrieved February 17th, 2016.