Lifts Offer Mobility, Freedom: Stairs, Who Cares?

by John Jennings on December 1, 1998 - 3:59pm


That's how Arizona retirees Betty Herzog and V.K. Stevens both felt a few months back.  The only difference was that Betty was stuck downstairs in her Scottsdale home and V.K. was confined to the upper floor of his physician son's Phoenix residence.

Whether caused by neuromuscular disease, injury, wear and tear on joints, arthritis or just plain old age, the inability to navigate stairways is something hundreds of thousands of Americans face.

In Betty's case, degeneration of her knees had reached the point at which climbing the stairs was agony.

"Finally, it got to where I'd refuse to go upstairs and get things because I just couldn't face tackling those darned stairs," Betty recalls.  As much as she liked her home, the 13 steps to her two second-floor bedrooms had become virtual torture for Betty.  She decided she'd better look around for a one-story place to live.

"Trouble was, I just couldn't find a place I liked nearly as much as I liked where I already lived," she says.  "That's when I decided to check into getting a stairlift installed in my place.  I'm sure glad I did — it's been wonderful!"

Stairlift units consist of a chair, generally with a fold-up seat, footrest and armrests, that's attached to a metal rail that's usually bolted into the wall, the stairs or both. An electric motor moves the chair up and down along the rail. Most stairlifts travel along the rail at a speed of about 22 feet per minute — not a breakneck pace by any means, but not painstakingly slow, either.

After checking out available units, Betty selected a nice, functional stairlift that would suit her needs and ordered it a few months ago.

"They installed it in less than four hours," she recalls, "and I couldn't be happier with it. It was installed with no visible damage to the carpet or steps, which was really nice. Now I can just sit in the chair and be carried up the stairs in about a minute."

Always on the lookout for a little added excitement in her life, Betty knew a good thing when she found it. "I call it my roller coaster," she says. "It's fun! Now when I need to go upstairs, I just hop in my roller coaster and off I go!"

In V.K.'s case, his right leg became weak and he started having difficulty getting up and down the staircase from the upstairs living quarters he and his wife, Jane, had in their son's home.

"Finally, I fell on the stairs," recalls V.K., "and my son said, 'That's it. You're going to hurt yourself seriously if we don't do something. We're getting you something to help you get up and down the stairs.' "

Deciding on a stairlift and buying it became a family affair, says the retired Greyhound Corp. vice president.

"Our two daughters helped pay for it, which was really nice," V.K. says. "Two guys came and installed it in just a few hours. It works beautifully — I don't know how I got along without it."

Now, instead of being stuck on the second floor, V.K. can sit in the chair and take a nice, smooth ride to the ground floor, where he and Jane can then go shopping or for rides.

"I use it every day," he says. "And, once in a while, Jane will use it, too. Stairs can wear you out."

Jim and LaVonne Delbrook own Access Elevators Inc. of Scottsdale, which sells and installs stairlifts, in-home elevator units and wheelchair lifts. The bulk of their privately owned business, as their firm name implies, involves Access-brand stairlifts.

"Being able to help someone in dire need is what we like best about this business," LaVonne says. A good-quality stairlift can be had for about $3,500, she notes, assuming the stairwell doesn't have complicated turns or other installation problems.

"Trouble is, there aren't many insurance plans that will cover stairlifts, which is a real shame," LaVonne says. "Medicare usually won't even talk to you about it. We try to help out any way we can. In one case, Jim let a family borrow his specialized tools to do their own installation of a stairlift — that was the only way they could afford it. It just makes you feel good if you can help in ways like that."

Greg Harmon is president of National Wheel-O-Vator Co. Inc. in Roanoke, Ill., one of the nation's leading manufacturers of stairlifts. He says his firm and others in the field have a unique opportunity to make life better for people with limited physical ability.

"I'm proud of our industry as a whole because we are providing a solution to a very important need," he says. Stairlifts can range in price from $2,000 to $10,000, depending on how much weight needs to be lifted and the difficulty of installation. Larger lifting units, including stairlifts for wheelchairs or even in-home elevators, can range from $4,000 to $15,000, Harmon notes.

"Basically, in this business, one size fits all," he says of stairlifts, "so the difference in price involves such things as better and more comfortable chairs, two armrests instead of one, and the type of drive system that's used.

"A stairlift is one of those products where the need has been identified before you begin to look seriously at buying a unit. This is a real solution for people because they don't want to stay cooped up when they can still get out and go places."

Having to move out of a comfortable, memory-filled family home because stairs have become a hindrance isn't necessary, he says.

"The only two factors that have to be considered," he notes, "are that a stairlift unit does take up some stairway space for the rail and, in some cases, the disability may progress to the point where the user won't be able to transfer from the wheelchair to the stairlift seat."

Both of those situations can be helped in many instances by the use of rail extensions at both the top and bottom of the stairs. Often the extensions can wrap around corners so the chair can be safely stored out of the way of people using the stairwell. Also, the extensions place the transfer point away from the top of the stairs, which reduces the chance of a potentially dangerous fall. Generally, purchasers of stairlifts are thrilled with the newfound freedom they have after the device is installed, Harmon notes.

Stairlifts are carefully engineered for easy use and low maintenance, he adds. And he should know — Harmon is chairman of the stairlift safety codes committee for the American National Standards Institute.

Here are some of the major stairlift manufacturers in the United States:

Bruno Independent Living Aids
1780 Executive Drive
P.O. Box 84
Oconomowoc, WI 53066
(800) 882-8183
Manufacturer of the Electra-Ride III Stairlift System

Butler Mobility Products
629 Lowther Road, #C
Lewisberry, PA 17339
(888) 847-0804
A complete line of Butler stairlifts, wheelchair lifts and vertical elevator-style lifts

ThyssenKrupp Access
4001 E. 138th St.
Grandview, MO 64030
(800) 829-9760
A complete range of stairlifts, in-home elevators and wheelchair lifts for stairs and porches

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