Grab Bars

Of the 2.9 million older adults in the U.S. who had fall injuries in 2017, severe enough that they went to the Emergency Department, many fell in the bathroom for lack of a bar to grab onto as they climbed into or out of the shower or tub. Many slipped while standing on the soapy surface. Others fell getting up from the toilet.

As we age, these are safety concerns for everyone who wants to live well longer. Additional falls risks develop when we add medications for chronic conditions, and other changes that are usually not thought of as falls risks.

Where might I need grab bars?

Grab bars are needed everywhere there is a change in level:  between the garage and the main house, the main house and a lanai or patio, or between rooms that are at different elevations such as a sunken living room.  Because so many falls occur in the bathroom, we will focus on bathroom grab bars.

You might think that the step into the walk-in shower is very low. Unless there is a ramp and one continuous surface, however, you are stepping over something, changing your center of gravity, relying on your balance. There is a change of level.

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Grab bars are lifesavers! You might wonder, “How can something as easy as installing a grab bar make such a big difference?” The solution of grab bars sounds so simple! Well, it is! Holding onto a fixed bar helps a person recover balance and, further, can prevent a fall in case of a slip.  Note that other objects do not support your weight, such as towel bars.

Increasingly these safety features will be part of future “universal” home design and building. You do not need, however, to wait for the building codes to catch up with the evidence. You can live a safety lifestyle right now.

If you are thinking to revisit this effort later, I want to make one more point before going into the design, purchasing, and installation specifics: If you fall and have an injury, a home care occupational therapist is likely to come to your home and recommend grab bars for your bathroom. You will do it then because you will be in a cast, or injured in some way that requires assistance. Here’s the good news: You do not need to wait until after the first fall. This is a safety step you want to take right away.

What do grab bars look like?

The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) sets guidelines for grab bar design and construction. When you shop for grab bars, look for a notation that the item is ADA compliant. You do not need to carry a measuring tape to check the size of the pipe, space from the wall, and other specifications. Just look for the ADA label.

Beyond size, appearance is important. If you were shopping now, you might find:

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  • An attractive brushed nickel grab bar that coordinates with the style of your bathroom fixtures.  One at a major store was 24 inches, and cost $37.50.
  • A stainless steel bar that may match your bathroom perfectly, at 36 inches costs about $30.
  • A white grab bar that stands out against a brightly colored wall, or, alternatively, blends into the background in a white-tiled shower. One that was 12 inches cost $11.

What will it cost to get the job done?

Grab bars require installations. Grab bars may be purchased from a home supply store, or there may be a specialty store near you, or an online source may have what you want.

You want one, maybe 24″, where you step into the shower or tub. You want another inside the shower that can be placed horizontally or on a diagonal, about 36″. Exact size and placement will depend on your needs. Another one, or equivalent device, goes by the toilet, unless you have arms built-in to a seat riser.

For this project, you will want someone with the appropriate skills to install each piece securely. That might be you or you may have a family member or friend in the business. Otherwise, look for a local professional or installation service. 

When seeking to hire someone to do your home modification, ask around your neighborhood for recommendations. Is there a notebook of references at your homeowner’s clubhouse? Ask neighbors who are registered on a shared website such as Nextdoor. Check with the Better Business Bureau.

Ask the person you want to hire what business memberships and licenses they hold. Ask for an estimate of their time and their rate. Compare different installers. Along the way, if someone is not polite, does not return calls as promised, or otherwise gives you cause for concern, consider someone else instead. Also, be prepared to sit down for a few minutes with the person who comes into your home to do the job. If something seems off, you can always change your mind, though there may be a fee for the service call. Plan to be present or close by, while work is being done in your home.

When this is the installer’s full-time business, they may be able to purchase at discount, thus offsetting the fee for service you will be charged.

  • Shaneka wants two grab bars added to her bathroom by her nephew Joseph who is a general contractor. Cost: $55 plus dinner for Joseph.

  • Bill decided on one 36″ brushed nickel, rough surface grab bar for his shower, and one 24 inch white grab bar for the wall near where he steps into the shower. He will do this for both bathrooms in his home. He will purchase from the same store he has used previously for various projects and hire the store’s installer who charges $75 for the first hour. Cost estimate: $125 for first bathroom, and $50 for second bathroom (labor charge covered by minimum).

If you hesitate to invest such money into your bathroom, let me offer two reasons why it would be smart economically to go ahead. First, grab bars are considered a plus in real estate. You would be adding value if this is your own home.

Second, in the here and now of spending, a fall injury can generate a surprising number of out of pocket costs, even with good insurance. Supplies like ace wraps and wrist bands, gauze and tapes, non-skid socks and slippers, extra bed linens and sleepwear; special creams and lotions; hourly wages for occasional at home services; loss of income if the person injured/ the spouse or partner, now caregiver, had been working.

Go for the grab bar before the injurious fall.

What additional prevention steps can I take immediately?

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  • For bathrooms that have a tub, consider having a transfer chair for those who cannot safely step into a tub. This device involves sitting down and shifting weight along the seat of the chair before lifting your legs into the tub. Cost about $50.
  • Shower chairs are great when endurance is a concern. With arms and back, chair cost about $50.
  • Non-skid flooring is important. For the tub, there are small rubberized decals in various decorative styles that are easy to install. Avoid mats with suction cups.