The best home choice to age in place is one where everything is located on the main floor. While this isn’t always possible, there are some stairway design choices that can be incorporated into the home that will create a safer, ageless stairway for everyone in the home.
I was amazed during the last Parade of Homes here in Pocatello. I didn’t see one set of stairs that would qualify as an ageless set of stairs. From my observations, it is either a contractor/builder cost savings or some strange trend where it is fashionable to have a railing on only one side of the stairs. I also saw that the railing was more often than not directly connected to the wall without any space between. My 72 year old mother wasn’t able to go down the stairs in a few of the homes because it was not safe for her. She has an arthritic hip that limits her ability to go up and down stairs very quickly. She also had a hard time gripping some of the very western handrails that were basically square pieces of finished wood attached directly to the wall because she didn’t have a way to grasp it. She also had to wait while other people came up and down because she needed to grip on the single handrail. (Oh, have I mentioned I am amazed and disappointed in how little respect our society has for our elders?)When considering the design of the handrail to place in an ageless home, the first and most important thing is that the stairway must have sturdy handrails on both sides of the stairway. If possible, the handrails should extend past the top and bottom of the stairs and be rounded on the ends. The handrail should be mounted between 34” and 38” above the treads. As a person ages, balance can be affected and stair railings that have an inch and a half space between the stair rail and the wall allow for gripping. Another consideration is to provide clear space along the railing so that the person ascending or descending the stairs can grip without having to go around newel posts or anything.Steps should be uniform in height and length (rise and run) so that the traveler doesn’t miscalculate and take a tumble. The recommended tread depth is 11” and recommended risers height is 7” from tread to tread. Stairs should have rounded or sloped nosings that do not protrude from the step more than one and a half inches. A person with decreased balance and flexibility could trip on the stair if it extends further. The stairs risers should not be open as this creates a tripping issue.
Stairs should not have anything loose on them by way of finish treatment. Stability and balance are better on harder surfaces so consider laminate or wood flooring. Just don’t specify high gloss because that could create a slip hazard.
One last consideration is that of lighting. The stairway should have plenty of light and the ability to turn the light on and off from both the top and bottom of the stairs.
Common sense and basic design guidelines can be combined to create and ageless stairway. Further and more in depth design guidelines are available at: ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities (ADAAG). If you have any questions or comments, please let me know. Take care.