Just take it one step at a time

We visited with some younger friends this week. They have a new baby and a new house. As we toured their attractive home, I was struck by the number of stairs. There were two steps — or was it three — just to get past the front door. Five steps led to the lower level of the house and an equal number to access upper-level bedrooms. To get into the master bath, you actually had to step down. The same was true in the sunken living room.

A grandfather with painfully arthritic knees or a visiting elder-aunt using a walker could be at great risk of fall and fracture in that home environment. Heck, they may not even be able to visit.

As we age, we increasingly need easy-access, age-friendly accommodations, such as a no-step entry, a well-lit, spacious living space with level flooring throughout — maybe even floors that cushion you a bit if you fall.

A 2012 Brookings Institution study found "walkability" was a key factor in living environments for aging adults — not just inside the aging person's home but in the surrounding neighborhood. AARP studies consistently find "visitability" a pivotal issue in age-friendly living.

As I write this, I think about where my husband and I live right now. There are 16 steps to our upper-floor bedrooms, and the staircase makes a right-angle turn. We even have steps outside the house to get to our "upper yard." Maybe that's why the weeds are so out of control up there.

But wait. I know we need more physical activity and exercise as we age, and going up and down steps burns calories and creates aerobic opportunity. The number of calories burned differs depending on your weight. A 150-pound person will burn about seven calories a minute when taking stairs. A person who weighs less burns fewer and a heavier person burns more. Now you know.

The Harvard Alumni Study (www.health.Harvard.edu) touts stair climbing as a fitness tool and recommends eight flights a day at a slow, steady pace — always using the hand rail. When I am out and about, I try to take steps instead of an elevator if given the option. But admittedly, when I do that, I also remind myself to stay "in the moment" to ensure I avoid a misstep. And I believe my osteoporotic body benefits more if I remember to place my entire foot on each step and not just my toe.

Like many aspects of aging, there is much to consider. A well-researched article in a publication that seems to have a full understanding of this issue (www.lowerextremityreview.com) identified "stair ascent and descent" and "stair negotiation" as "one of the most difficult tasks attributable to aging" and one of the leading causes of fall-related injuries and, as a result, lost independence. I balanced that information against the earlier-referenced Harvard study's recommendations and find myself in a quandary.

For now, I intend to take these considerations one step at a time — and keep reflecting on what "age-friendly living" means to me personally. "Stepping up" to these issues is critical to our individual and collective well-being.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at 541-261-2037 or Sharon@hmj.com.

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