Your parents might, like many others, love visiting historic houses, castles and landscaped gardens. These visits may give them great pleasure and provide precious time with family or friends. They probably appreciate the combination of the beautiful setting and the opportunity to explore and learn about a place and its history.
Even those of us who used to complain about being dragged round churches and galleries as a child (was your mother brandishing a green Michelin Guide as well?) come to appreciate these places over time.
For my mother, it’s all about the gardens (she loves a classic English country garden). A client has just returned from a trip to see the famous, intricate mosaics in Ravenna (these date from the 5th and 6th centuries). She went 20 years ago and has been planning a return visit ever since!
The problem is that, just at the time of life when our parents fully appreciate and have the time to visit all these fabulous places, they start to have difficulty getting around them. One of the big challenges people face at places like stately homes and historic gardens is getting up and down stairs and steps.
In castles, stately homes or manor houses the stairs may have been built hundreds of years ago. The stone steps may have worn edges and slippery surfaces. If the tread on the stairs isn’t very deep, that can make the stairs harder. People tell me they dread narrow steps. They can just about get down with a good handrail (and a sideways descent). Without a handrail, they can be horrendous.
And, don’t get people started on spiral staircases, which can be almost impossible!
Outdoors – say in a formal garden – it might be a few steps down rather than a whole flight. But those few steps can feel like an insurmountable challenge if there’s no railing or support. At least stairs indoors usually have a wall on one side, even if they don’t have a handrail. People have told me that the sight of a flight of stairs without any railing or support strikes terror into their hearts.
Whether indoors or outdoors, stairs are always harder to cope with when there are lots of people around. The noise and visual distraction make it much harder to concentrate. Older people who want to take their time may feel rushed and not want to make a fuss about asking for help.
Additionally, people might be happily distracted – chatting to friends or looking at the medieval stained glass. They could also be physically tired after a long day of travelling and enjoying themselves.
Difficulties with stairs at cultural sites can turn what should be an interesting and enjoyable day out into a worrying occasion. Additionally, the consequences of falling on the stairs don’t bear thinking about (falls while walking down stairs account for 60% of all fall-related deaths).
People may start avoiding trips and miss out on memorable experiences. More likely is that they worry in advance when they should be looking forward to their visit. Their concerns may be unfounded – some places may have installed more safety measures on the stairs – but will still affect their enjoyment of the occasion. The more anxiety that surrounds these visits, the less likely they are to plan more of them.
I know you want your older parents to be focused on enjoying the ornate interiors or the formal gardens, and not worrying about feeling unsteady or falling on the stairs. So, here are a few things you can do to help your parents before they visit their next stately pile or picture-perfect English garden…
You could do some research in advance to help them to plan or decide if they should visit a specific place. Here are some ways you could get information for them:
– Call the information office for the house/ garden etc. They should be able to give you details of access difficulties, numbers and types of flights of stairs etc.
– Check out the website for the venue. Also look at as many other photos you can find online.
– Talk to people who have been there before.
– Asking questions in online forums can get you a lot of helpful information.
– If it’s a place you are particularly concerned about, and you aren’t too far away, a reconnaissance visit will give you all the information you need to help your parents decide if it’s going to be OK for them to visit.
It could help to discuss strategies to cope with difficult stairs. Here are some ideas you could suggest:
· Go down sideways (especially where the tread of the stairs is narrow and you can’t fit your whole foot on the step if you go straight down)
· If there are a lot of people, wait until the rush has died down (the distraction of noise and people rushing around will increase stress and make it harder to maintain balance)
· Try to plan visits for quieter times (weekdays – not during school holidays). There may be fewer visitors earlier in the day.
· Look at the layout and plan any parts of the trip that involve stairs earlier in the day when you are less tired.
· Use any support you can find (a wall without a handrail can still be very helpful). Perhaps taking a stick (even if you don’t need it for walking) would help on the stairs.
· Ask for help (and explain exactly how someone can best help you – practise with different ways of holding arms at home, so you know what is helpful for you)
Last, but not least, encourage your parents, friends and neighbours to stay as active, fit and flexible as they can. Performing strength, balance and mobility exercises will make them feel more confident and steadier every day, especially on difficult flights of stairs.
I have created five exercise videos to help older people feel stronger, become more flexible and improve their balance. These videos are designed to help older people improve their fitness so that they have more energy for everyday activities. Being stronger and having better balance will reduce their risk of falls, whether walking or on the stairs.
These include an 8-minute Move More Easily video (great to reduce joint stiffness and get moving, no equipment needed). There’s also an Ankle Mobility and Balance routine (better ankle strength and mobility are crucial to safe walking and stair climbing).
People have told us that our videos are ‘brilliant, clear and easy to follow’. Click here to receive all five free videos and a bonus PDF Guide to Safe and Successful Home Exercise with Vida Wellness.
Claudine Aherne is the founder of Vida Wellness and lives in London. She is an exercise specialist who has been helping older adults to become stronger, improve their balance and feel more flexible for more than 15 years.