Stairs can pose a problem as you get older, so take steps now to ease the climb

By Maryann Haggerty
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 14, 2010

Eventually, the 17 steps became too much for Karl Schwengel.

Schwengel, 79, a retired business manager for a D.C. nonprofit association, has lived in his two-story Capitol Hill townhouse since 1969. Over time, his health has deteriorated, so about two years ago, he had a stair lift installed.

"It's marvelous," he said. "I couldn't imagine going down those 17 steps or up those 17 steps. It's not fast, thank goodness, but it does get between floors."

As the U.S. population ages -- or just thinks about how the knees can be the first thing to go -- more homeowners may need to contemplate what steps to take about steps.

Buyer preferences vary by region. While ranch houses are popular in many parts of the Sun Belt, the default in the D.C. region is a two-story Colonial. Some buyers, especially those with children, prefer two-story houses because they separate public and private areas. However, older buyers overwhelmingly would choose one-story living, according to a consumer preference survey by the National Association of Home Builders. While 52 percent of all buyers said they would prefer a single-story house, that number climbs to 79 percent among buyers 55 and older.

"It has everything to do with convenience for the older folks versus privacy for the younger home buyers," said Rose Quint, assistant vice president for survey research at the builders association.

Still, census numbers show that the bulk of the nation's housing is two stories or more, and many surveys show that people would prefer to stay in their longtime homes as they age. That means a lot of stairs to climb.

"Stairs are going to be an obstacle and sometimes a hazard," said Vince Butler, president of Butler Brothers, a Fairfax County builder specializing in renovation. He teaches classes for other builders who want to earn a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist designation, a program designed by the builders association and AARP, the senior advocacy group.

When he evaluates a home, Butler said, he asks, "Is there a way to configure the house so they don't have to use stairs?" In the Washington region, he said, the biggest challenge is that very few houses have a full bathroom on the first level.

There are several ways to approach the step situation.

-- Make existing stairs safer. Age doesn't automatically mean you can't use stairs. Capitol Hill Village, a community-based organization devoted to allowing members to age in place, has about 300 members, including Schwengel. Many live in the historic neighborhood's signature townhouses. According to Executive Director Gail Kohn, about 40 members have physical challenges that make stairs prohibitive. For others, stairs are good exercise, she said. "The idea is to put that stair riser off as long as you can."

So consider safety improvements, said Louis Tenenbaum, a Silver Spring consultant and contractor specializing in aging in place and universal design. Bright lighting at the top and bottom -- with switches at both landings -- is a start. Railings on both sides are a big help; they can allow you to support yourself while carrying things, or using both hands as needed. Make sure the railings go a bit past the top and bottom of the stairs for added safety. Think about friction -- whether the carpeting or wood allows your feet to get a grip. Assess visual contrast, too, especially looking down a flight. Can you see the individual treads?

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