Senior residents depend on their facility management to provide a safe home, and management wants nothing less. Elevators are necessary for residents to avoid stairs with all the difficulties and dangers they pose, but elevators can also pose a danger to the elderly and infirm.

What many facility operators do not realize is that there are options to configure elevators to be friendlier to residents and to serve them more safely. Elevator maintenance companies are the best source for learning about these options, but they will not tell facility operators about safety options unless they are asked.
Safety Trumps Speed
Most residents are willing to take the extra time to be safe, and elevators can be adjusted to respect this need. There are a number of specific things facility administrators can do to respond appropriately to this need.
Faster elevator operation at each floor means the elevator car can leave sooner and reach another floor sooner where other people are waiting. While this regimen is desirable for high-rise office buildings, it has no place in senior living facilities.
Most elevator injuries among elderly users are due to slips, trips, or falls.Ninety-five percent of the problems encountered by residents are while entering and exiting the elevator, a quantity that divides into 20 and 80 percent segments. Twenty percent of these are due to mis-leveling, meaning the elevator is not level with the floor when the doors open. The remaining 80 percent of the entry/exit problems revolve around the operation of the doors. Elevator doors are controlled by electronics that control how long the opened doors remain open, how slowly or how fast (and therefore forcefully) the doors close, how friendly the doors are when they find an obstruction in their closing path, and how well the doors sense or “see” the person trying to enter or exit.
The average elevator doors are set to begin closing three to six seconds after opening. What is the hurry? The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) actually requires that elevators doors remain fully opened for at least 20 seconds or more after opening.
Once in the car, an impatient resident can always press the Door Close button to get going sooner. However, most residents will be more comfortable with the service set this way, and fewer injuries and lawsuits will result.
Ask the elevator maintenance company to set the time to at least to 20 seconds, in order to comply with ADA requirements.
Physical contact with any user is undesirable, but it is unacceptable around seniors.
The national code for safe operation of elevators, published by the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, allows speeds of up to one foot per second and forces as great as 30 pounds, but half the speed and one-tenth the force would be much better. Again, the elevator maintenance company can reduce the door speed and force it to a much slower pace. Because of other requirements in the Elevator Safety Code, one-third the “normal” speed and force should be immediately obtainable.
Impatient Elevators
When a building is on fire, special rules apply. Doors need to close so that firefighters can use the elevator for access and rescue. To provide for this, the doors go into “nudging mode” and move slowly but inexorably to close.
“Nudging mode” works this way: After a period of time, when the doors have not closed for whatever reason, they close at a reduced speed and force without regard for anything in the way. However, “nudging mode” is an option during normal operation that is often left enabled simply by chance. Nudging is fundamentally wrong for senior living facilities as the doors will close on residents and poses a high risk for injury and liability.
Besides knocking people down, doors in nudging mode have been known to squeeze and trap people with disabilities. This happened once to a wheelchair-bound man in Michigan. Nudging has been outlawed in the state for many years.
Until more states follow Michigan’s lead, the nudging can be turned off by the elevator maintenance company.
Sensors Replace Humans
Fifty years ago, human operators ran elevators. Then, in the 1950s, elevators began to operate automatically. Today, the eyes, ears, common sense, and compassion of a human being have been replaced with electromechanical devices that decide if, when, and how to close the doors. Sensors detect obstructions and attempt to reopen closing doors as needed.
The first such device was a mechanical bar on the leading edge of the moving door that touched the obstruction to detect it. This concept of a mechanical object touching passengers to detect their presence should not be allowed in senior care facilities. Unfortunately, many elevators in two- and three-story facilities are still equipped with this mechanical bar, making them inherently dangerous and in violation of the ADA. Imagine something as inappropriate as pushing on frail people before backing off.
For 30 years, various configurations of light beams have been arranged to detect objects in the direct path of the car doors. For the past 10 years, camera systems have been available that look out into the hallway to detect people giving them even more time to safely enter and exit.
The cost of this very best, state-of-the-art protection is around $2,000 or less per elevator. This small, one-time capital expenditure is well worth the protection it provides from both injuries and lawsuits.
Ask For Help
A physical therapist, Susan Parys, at an East Coast senior living facility, became concerned with the speed and force of the elevator doors and began searching for solutions. Taking charge, she found the telephone number for the elevator maintenance company.
The first words from the young mechanic when he arrived were, “There is nothing wrong with these elevators.” By elevator industry standards, he was absolutely correct, but their dialog was complicated by differences in their knowledge and backgrounds.
She explained the need, he responded with a simple screwdriver adjustment, and the time the doors remained opened was greatly increased. The residents now have several facility elevators that are set appropriately for their needs. Asking really can make a difference.
The speed and force with which doors close and the way they sense people in the way are critical requirements for safe elevators in senior facilities.
It is important to remember that  owners must ask their elevator maintenance company to tell them about options and inform them about safer alternatives.
Click HERE for information about the causes of elevator injuries among older adults.


C. Stephen Carr, PhD, an engineer with Technology Litigation Corp., specializes in elevator and escalator safety and accident investigation. Carr, who has analyzed more than 230 accident cases in 37 states over the past decade, can be reached at (800) 656-8876, ext. 102, or at