Grab Bars

Why should I add grab bars or stair railings to my home?

If you have not thought before about doing this, you may not be sure it is something you need or want to do.  Please know, at this point we are not asking you to be ready, willing, and able to add grab bars or railings. All we are asking, for now, is that you become informed about how grab bars and railings function and when they may be useful for you. 

Some situations where grab bars and railings are relevant:

Bruce is receiving chemotherapy. Occasionally, he experiences severe weakness. 

Judy is coming home after knee replacement surgery. 

Fran will visit for the holidays. Despite arthritis pain, she loves to shop and always returns with many bags full of her latest “finds.”

In all these instances, holding onto a grab bar or a stair railing would be a good falls prevention strategy. The need may be temporary or ongoing, likely to recur, or not. The aim is to prevent a fall.

Getting older is part of this picture. As we age, it is not unusual to lose muscle strength, tire more easily, be more susceptible to illnesses, and experience medication side effects that involve dizziness or balance. We cannot say whether this progression will happen to you or a loved one ever, or at 65 or 75 or 85 years old. 

Our goal is to be ready and have support available to prevent a fall. You may use a grab bar or railing routinely or ignore it most times. But when you feel about to fall, there it is. Grab onto it. It will support your weight. It will ease your fall.

Where might I need grab bars or railings?

Experts tell us that grab bars are needed everywhere there is a change in level, such as 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. 

You might want to make the case 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.

What about the placement of stair railings? Experts recommend that stair railings be on both sides of the stairway, to accommodate those who are left-handed and right-handed, coming and going, carrying bags with one hand or simply needing to lean to one side.

Of the 2,800,000 in the U.S. who have fall injuries each year, severe enough that they went to the Emergency Department, some 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. Of course, others fell when they were leaving home or returning. They were walking up or down their front steps, side entrances, and porches. At another time we will address additional falls risks.

Image source:

The solution of grab bars and railings sounds so simple, and physical therapists will tell you that it is. Holding onto a fixed bar can help a person maintain balance and, further, can assist in case of a slip.  Note that other objects do not support your weight, such as towel bars in a bathroom or mailboxes near the entrance stairs. 

Many assisted living communities and some public facilities require that bathrooms have grab bars and stairs have railings on both sides. Although not yet required in most private residential settings, some builders are getting ahead of the requirements by offering ADA compliant features in their new homes.  Increasingly these safety features will be part of future home design and building. You do not need, however, to wait for the building codes to catch up with the evidence. You can be safety conscious right now.

What do grab bars and railings look like? Cost?

When you shop for grab bars and railings, you will want to see a notation that the item is ADA compliant. What does this mean? The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) sets guidelines for grab bar construction (CITE). For instance, the diameter of the pipe used for this kind of purpose must be between 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 inches. ADA compliant grab bar handrails for accessible bathrooms must be installed between 34 and 38 inches off the ground. Furthermore, there must be a separation between the grab bar and the surface where it is located, of at least 1-1/2 inches. That space will provide room for proper grab and allow the hand to grasp it firmly. You do not need to carry a measuring tape, just look for the ADA compliant label.

Beyond size, appearance is important. Even hospitals and nursing homes today do not look as institutional as they did in decades past. Certainly, you do not want the old industrial look you may recall from years ago. If you were shopping today, you might find:

  • An attractive brushed nickel grab bar that coordinates with the style of your bathroom fixtures.  One viewed at a major store was 24 inches, and cost $37.50.
  • A white grab bar that stand outs against a brightly colored wall, or, alternatively, blends into the background in a white-tiled shower. One that was 12 inches cost $11. 
  • A wrought iron railing for your three front steps that matches your wrought iron light fixture was $318.00.

What will it cost to get the job done?

Grab bars and stair railings require purchases and installations. Grab bars and railings 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.

Consider where they will be used. Determine how many you will need. For this project, you will want to use 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 Nextdoor. Check with the Better Business Bureau. Try local nursing and rehab facilities for recommendations. 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.

You or the person you ask to do this job will need to purchase materials. You may want to participate in the choices and consider various estimates. For instance, you may or may not care to invest in the wrought-iron scrolled railing. You may prefer, the plain design and find it costs less.

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. Cost: $55 plus dinner for Joseph.
  • Bill has one railing on his front steps and now wants to add a second railing. He will purchase from the same store as previously and hire the store’s installer. Cost estimate: $600.00.

Obviously, cost varies greatly based on what you want to do, cost of materials and cost of labor. Make your estimates. If the cost is too high, maybe the job be divided, perhaps one part now and the other after your next birthday (because you are putting grab bars on your wish list).

What prevention steps can I take immediately?

While you may be waiting to get a staircase railing installed, there are some prevention steps you can take. For instance, place small tables or hooks at the entry to a staircase for holding excess bags so that a hand is free for the wall, if not the railing. Also, consider keeping long handled totes handy.  These can be carried on your shoulder leaving both hands free. 

  • Will grab bars and/or stair railings be useful in your home? Maybe for when a parent visits, or in their home?
  • What conversations do you need to have to make this decision?
  • What action can you take now? Remember, prevention works!