How to choose a home stair lift

July 2, 2013 

Q: My wife is having an increasingly difficult time going up and down the stairs in our house. We are interested in purchasing a stair lift, but aren't sure what to get or where to look. Can you help us?

A good home stair lift is a wonderful solution for seniors with mobility issues who have trouble with steps. A stair lift will carry your wife up and down the stairs in a safe seated position, giving her easy access to the second story or basement level of your home. But with so many options available how do you choose one that best meets your needs and budget?

Here are a few shopping tips along with some good companies that offer them.

Types of lifts

There are two basic types of stair lifts that are sold today: straight and curved. The type you need will depend upon the design of your staircase.

A straight stair lift is one that travels in a straight line up a flight of stairs uninterrupted by landings, bends or curves, and costs between $3,000 and $5,000 installed. Curved lifts, however, are much more elaborate and will go around corners, bends and changes in direction. Curved lifts are also much more expensive, typically running between $10,000 and $15,000 or more depending on the complexity of the installation.

Also available through certain companies are weatherproof lifts for outdoor steps, and standing stair lifts (also called perch lifts) for those who have trouble bending their knees.

You also need to know that all stair lifts mount to the stair treads, not to the wall, so they are very sturdy and can be installed in almost any home.

If your wife is a large person, you may need to get her a heavy-duty lift with a wider seat and bigger lifting capacity -- all companies offer them. Or, if she's tall, find out about raising the seat height during installation.

Most stair lifts available today also have seats, armrests and footplates that fold up out of the way, and swivel seats that make getting into and out of the chair easier. They also come with standard safety features like seatbelts, breaking systems and footrest sensors, push-button or rocker-switch controls on the armrest for easy operation, and "call send" controls that allow you to call or send the unit to the other end of the stairs. Make sure the lift you choose has all these features.

Depending on the company, you may also have the option of choosing between an electric (AC) and a battery powered (DC) stair lift. Battery-powered units charge at the base station (some recharge anywhere on the track) are quieter, smoother and better than electric lifts, and will work even if there's a power failure in the home.

Where to shop

While there are many companies that make, sell and install stair lifts, the most respected in the industry are Bruno (bruno.com, 866-345-7537) and Stannah (stannahstairlifts.com, 800-877-8247), followed by Harmar (harmar.com, 800-833-0478) and Sterling (handicare.com, 866-276-5438).

Unfortunately, Medicare does not cover stair lifts, but many states offer Medicaid waivers that will pay for lifts to those that qualify, and the VA offers cash grants to veterans with disabilities for home safety improvements.

To save some money, you may want to consider purchasing a used or refurbished model.

Or, if you need a stair lift for only a short period of time, consider renting one.

Most companies offer these options, and many offer financing programs too.

To get started, contact some stair lift companies who will put you in touch with a dealer in your area.

All dealers provide free in-home assessments and estimates, and can help you choose an appropriate lift.

Jim Miller, a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book, can be reached at Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org.

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