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Changing Outlooks: Bannister Balance

This idea adapts residential stair rails to improve physical strength and mental confidence in a playful way while going up and down stairs.

Photo of Susan Jackewicz

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Who is your idea designed for and how does it enable older adults to live their best possible life by preventing falls?

This idea is designed for older active adults to maintain and build balance, flexibility, strength and confidence indoors each time they use the staircases in their homes, while changing the focus of using stairs into a conscious and fun effort.

Personal observation using stair railings finds hand placements and finger grips varying both going up and down stairs.  At times the palm of the hand braces weight, fingers are used for a “brake” balance, or a full grip is used in holding weight against or pulling up the rail.  It seems there could be a better system for that touchpoint between hand and rail.   Inspired by the sport of rock climbing and the emergence of at-home rock wall installations, imagine hand holds custom designed for this purpose being affixed to bannisters for providing weight bearing and gripping mechanisms.  They could be placed to alleviate joint strain, while improving muscle tone.  "Footsteps" could concurrently be installed on the stairs for additional cueing.  Options could be taken each time one uses the stairs, making climbing or descending a thoughtful, conscious, and fun effort.  

House dwellers could use holds simply as adaptive objects, have them become part of a structured physiotherapy program, or incorporate them to a supportive community program focusing on technique, physical strength, mental agility, and balanced movement.

Holds could be either standardized or 3D printed customizations depending on type of rail.  They could have the appearance of sport equipment; be elegantly designed to compliment existing decor; or be engineered to integrate into a Universal Design scheme.  It appears most existing rails are wooden; double rails (on both sides of stair) would be ideal.  

A simple, Ikea-like starter version could be made; with add-ons such as color choice (possible color blindness adaptation); sensor lighting when first/last hold is touched; sensors testing variable weight strength and timing for communication to physiologist or trainer; and/or gamification (think elliptical trainer program).  

Testing and standards required for any permitting or insurance regulations would have to be investigated.  

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

First, with an industrial designer/architect, generate sketches of potential holds and detail how they'd attach to current rails; second, show sketches to physiotherapists and sports trainers for their ideas on the three potential approaches to use; finally, take information to groups of older people at local gyms, libraries, and councils on aging to gauge interest. A wooden cross-over ladder prototype could be built to help test potential users' interaction with the stairs, rails, and holds.

What skills, input, or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Since this is a somewhat "wild idea", the OpenIDEO community's skills and expertise would be helpful to see where this might go - if it's feasible to get past any barriers and to help refine how the challenge of using stair rails could be solved so that facing stairs in one's home becomes a playful way to strengthen against falls.

How long has your idea existed?

  • 0-3 months

This idea emerged from

  • An Individual

Tell us about your work experience:

Strategist. Writer. Cartographer. Designer. Passionate about technology and human centered design research. Family caregiver advocate. “We can and MUST do better!”


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Susan!

What are the next steps for your idea?
I found some footage of older adults climbing stairs, this might provide some insight and some idea of further observations that could be undertaken:
Sadly, this is not indoor footage.

Photo of Susan Jackewicz

@Kate Rushton Next steps for this idea will be to further refine and prototype the three major components:
1) 3D printed climbing hand holds and attachment to standard bannisters. @Michael O'Sullivan @Stair Safe has offered technical assistance. I'd love to get input from OpenIDEO designers such as @Samantek Ray @Fitness Belay and a hand hold manufacturer currently producing equipment for adaptive climbing contribute for prototyping.
2) Develop tiered program depending upon user abilities. @Anusha Venkatakrishnan with her @Teens + Seniors A Community Approach emphasizes 3 program elements: achievable short term goals; methods of tracking progress, and social support. Climbing principles of strength, balance, awareness and movement need to be matched with users' abilities. Establishing appropriate goal levels and the climbing movements to achieve them need to be developed with a physical therapist in conjunction with climbing experts. Organizations such as Paradox Sports (, an initiative supported by The North Face with a comprehensive training program for people with physical disabilities could be invaluable partners.
3) The social support and community Ashusha emphasizes could be tested through climbing gyms such as Brooklyn Boulders Somerville, which developed a strong community culture as part of their mission. While they, too, have an adaptive climbing program, I think it would be informative to also touch upon implicit biases with them around sharing climbing principles with older people. There are too few climbers of any sort to emulate, like this fellow:

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