Preventing elderly guests with poor vision from falling down stairs
June 21, 2015 4:34 PM   Subscribe

My family has a summer house with a steep, poorly lit stairway to the basement. The top exits into the kitchen. There is a door that is normally kept closed at the top, and guests other than children rarely need to go down these stairs. So, what's the problem? Recently, a family friend with a similar setup had their elderly friend tumble down such stairs (presumably confusing it with the bathroom), and were badly injured and had to be rushed to the hospital. We have lots of elderly friends/family/neighbors that regularly come over. So...

...what solution would you suggest to prevent elderly guests with poor vision/balance/sense of direction from accidentally falling down these stairs?

I know a simple lock will not work, because other guests will inevitably find it a nuisance and leave it unlocked, defeating its purpose.
posted by Seeking Direction to Home & Garden (23 answers total)
A baby gate?
posted by Carol Anne at 4:37 PM on June 21, 2015

Could you install a simple motion light that would turn on as soon as the door is opened? That would probably be enough to get someone's attention and cue them to look where they're walking.

And if it's a poorly lit stairwell, a nice, bright motion light would make everyone's lives easier and not just benefit your elderly guests.
posted by phunniemee at 4:39 PM on June 21, 2015 [10 favorites]

What is in the basement that guests would need to go downstairs for? If it can't be moved or duplicated upstairs, perhaps a clip-on light or two to improve visibility?
posted by Koko at 4:40 PM on June 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

In a similar situation we added a wooden baby gate (with a swinging hinge, not one that pressure-locks itself) in addition to the basement door. Both stayed closed/could be opened. Visually, it says "I AM DEFINITELY NOT THE BATHROOM" at a glance.

YMMV and please tell everyone to open and close the gate rather than climbing over.
posted by kate blank at 4:41 PM on June 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: All that is in the basement is a ping-pong table, garbage cans, and some freezers. So the only people going down are whoever is cooking or cleaning up and (mostly young) people playing ping-pong.

The problem is not that elderly guests need to use these stairs (someone else will gladly take anything that needs the freezer down for them); it's that they open the door by accident and may not be able to see that it's the wrong room. The only light is at the bottom.

Sounds like an unusual scenario, but the aforementioned incident at the friend's house made me think about this.
posted by Seeking Direction at 4:44 PM on June 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

A latch on the outside that needs to be consciously opened will prevent people from flinging open the door and carelessly stepping onto a steep, dark stairwell without looking first. A small latch (like a hook and eye) that does not need a key will not impede anyone who intends to go down into the basement. Perhaps you can add a note "This is the basement! Not the powder room!" if it's really necessary.

Motion sensitive lights will also help, but just a small latch that people need to think about opening should slow folks down enough to prevent accidents.
posted by crush-onastick at 4:51 PM on June 21, 2015 [5 favorites]

What about some high-contrast signage that say "Steep basement stairs - do not open" or "This is not the washroom - steep stairs" or something similar?

If you're talking about people with low rather than no vision, if you can follow the ADA signage guidelines or exceed them (white text on black background, sans-serif typeface, and minimally 3-inch high letters), they may find this readable, depending on their degree of vision loss.

This is, of course, dependent on that door being kept closed, and having sufficient light outside the door itself for the sign to be readable.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:52 PM on June 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I like the motion light option for inside the door. They make battery operated ones.

Also, depending on your decor you could get some vinyl lettering or signs for the doors to label them. For example this one says Powder Room. You can also buy vinyl letters to make your own sign (or even hand paint something.) And then do something similar for the downstairs door. Also nightlights in the hallway may help or even painting the bathroom door a fun color that you could see in the dark. Oh and I also keep a nightlight in the bathroom so I can find my way in the dark anyway.
posted by Crystalinne at 4:55 PM on June 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

How about a somewhat strong door-closing spring combined with a sign on the door that says BASEMENT in high contrast 3" high lettering? Or a secondary baby gate right inside the door that needs to be manually opened? I'd also keep an eyehook lock on it just in case. I know that people are unlikely to lock it behind themselves but you can lock it at night when everyone is up from the basement and then people are less likely to open it thinking they're on their way to the bathroom.
posted by jessamyn at 5:07 PM on June 21, 2015

Bring the lighting up to code, because it sounds like it isn't conforming now.
At the very least, that means a three-way light switch at both the top and bottom of the stairs.
posted by the Real Dan at 5:13 PM on June 21, 2015 [6 favorites]

Yeah, my first thought was using some battery-operated LED lights (not even motion lights, since they're supposed to last for so long). On the other hand, I can also see someone elderly, sleepy, or inattentive just opening the door and walking through without noticing the stairs. So a sign saying "this way to the basement" or something with a clear picture of stairs (and maybe a ping pong table, or stick figure falling down said stairs) might be another measure, as well as locking the door at night, especially if anyone is staying in a room on the kitchen level.

I'm assuming you already do this, but I'd also make sure to give guests and especially elderly guests a specific warning about that door and the stairs, and show them personally how to find the bathroom.
posted by trig at 5:15 PM on June 21, 2015

White or yellow tape on the top and bottom steps.
posted by brujita at 5:15 PM on June 21, 2015

Thinking about it, it's possible that unexpectedly-colored LED lights might be useful in terms of making a person more alert to their surroundings. And think about what people see as they open the door: if they're looking straight ahead (i.e. not down, and therefore not seeing the stairs) they might see a wall, depending on where they're standing. If so that would also be a good place to hang a clear well-lighted sign of some sort.

Basically you want things that might snap people out of automatic-mode.
posted by trig at 5:21 PM on June 21, 2015

LED strip lights run along the underside of the railing or diagonally on the wall just above the treads? It'd be cheap enough to just leave them on whenever people are around.
posted by teremala at 5:24 PM on June 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

We have a half -door at the top of our basement steps. Although it was put in because there is a slanted ceiling above the stairs, it might also work in your situation. Perhaps remove the 'outside' knob and only have the 'inside' knob? You'd just have to reach over the half-door to open it, which would be no big deal so long as you're over 3.5 feet tall.
posted by Elly Vortex at 6:00 PM on June 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

My mom uses yellow caution tape to keep my dad, who has dementia, off the stairs. One strip of that across the doorway works like a charm. He sees it and turns away.
posted by I_love_the_rain at 6:20 PM on June 21, 2015

You could put a bead curtain onto the basement side of the door frame. Fun for the kids, impossible to miss for the vision impaired.
posted by gorillawarfare at 9:26 PM on June 21, 2015

Yellow caution tape (or even electrical tape), be as gaudy as you want, easier than repainting it. You can also buy a sheet of sticky vinyl (often used for wall coverings or for making vinyl decals) If you want to go overboard, put up a buzzer and alarm linked to the door itself. The ENTIRE HOUSE will know it's been opened. :D
posted by kschang at 10:32 PM on June 21, 2015

I like the idea of a [door sensor chime]( in addition to whatever other solution you rely on. That old saying that you can't design a system smart enough to outdumb someone who doesn't know what they're doing is true.

Even if you put a gate there, someone could just open the gate and fall down the stairs(or fall OVER the gate, by walking towards it without looking down). You want to know if the door has been opened at all.
posted by emptythought at 4:51 AM on June 22, 2015

A clear, simple sign on the door (BASEMENT STAIRS or something similar) seems like the easiest quick fix.

Put a cute sign or at least a decoration on the bathroom door as well. I hate wondering which of the blank doors in a hallway is the bathroom and which is some random closet because I've forgotten from the last time I visited. After you've already been someplace once, it gets a little embarrassing to ask.

But yeah, you really should add lighting to the top of the stairs as well, for everyone's benefit.
posted by desuetude at 8:40 AM on June 22, 2015

I'd install a keypad lock for the door (unless the stairway is a means of egress from the kitchen in emergencies). The door will automatically lock and will require a key entry to open it from the kitchen (people in the basement can open from the inside without issue). Since it's not for security, you can set up the code to be something simple like 1111.
posted by melissasaurus at 10:20 AM on June 22, 2015

Man, twice in one day I have suggested these cheap Mr. Beams Lights. This kind only comes on when it senses movement in the dark. Perfect for when the guests opens the door. It's bright enough that one at the top and one at the bottom will clearly light a whole flight of stairs and this model lasts for 2+ years with out changing the batteries.
posted by saradarlin at 11:00 AM on June 23, 2015

Put a sign on the door. In big letters. And at least an eye hook. Any physical barrier to someone mindlessly opening the door and stepping through.

A fall like this caused the injuries that killed my grandfather when he was 38 - he opened what he thought was the door to a restroom and instead fell down a steep flight of steps. Please do not mess around, or worry about inconveniencing people.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 9:27 PM on June 24, 2015

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