“What’s All The Fuss About Grab Bars For Aging In Place Design?”

It wasn’t that long ago when grab bars were not popular and actually were considered to be a sign of aging or frailty that people did not want to have in their homes. There was a definite distancing of themselves from the idea of having grab bars – and certainly what they deemed to be the institutional look of them (brushed nickel, stainless steel or chrome).

Well, that was then, and this is now. We have gone through a few years of trying to minimize the look of grab bars so they blended in more to the surrounding environment – even to the point of being the same color and texture as the surface they were mounted on and being virtually invisible (not what is desired in a grab bar which is designed to prevent falls). We have seen flat ones, which tend to be less ergonomic than the round ones (our hands form around round surfaces easier than flat ones). We have seen dozens of colors, sizes, shapes, and textures.

First of all, grab bars make sense – especially when installed as a defensive measure. We know about the concept of defensive driving where we expect other drivers to make a mistake and we drive accordingly. We always are looking for evasive action that we can take to avoid an incident or prevent the driver who acted incorrectly from injuring himself or others in the process. We want everyone to remain safe – especially us and our passengers. This is why we call it defensive – we are defending against the possibility of injury happening to us.

This same idea carries over to the use of grab bars. They can be installed in several places throughout the home and can be selected for their size, shape, color, and texture to accommodate the desires of the client. One of the first places a strategic or defensive grab bar (also called an assist, safety assist, safety rail, or other descriptive name by some to make them sound better and less like the institutional name) is at the front door. Here something that is consistent with the design of the entry would be appropriate, but function definitely is more important than form. It should be a vertical grab bar installed at an appropriate height for people using it.

At the entry – actually, any place in the home where a step up or step down occurs – people need the security of knowing that they can grab onto something for support. Not everyone will need this, and not everyone will need it every time. It’s there when it is needed. If someone slips, missteps, becomes distracted, or catches their foot as they are trying to step into the doorway, this is there for assistance. This works enter or leaving the home and is available for those who live in that home as well as any guests or visitors. It doesn’t have to be flashy or particularly large and doesn’t need to call attention to itself. It just needs to be there to provide support for anyone who needs it. 

People generally provide railings at their entry steps although many people choose not to use them. Still, they are there in case they are needed and to keep people from slipping off the edge of the steps. When used like this, think of the railings as a type of diagonal grab bars that are located along the steps to provide assistance for those who require it – even if it is just occasionally.

The second major place to include the vertical grab bar is at the entrance to the tub or shower – for the same reasons that it is important at the front door. Getting in or out of the shower generally requires stepping over the edge of the tub or a curb or threshold of the shower. Even when one does not exist, there is still the entry motion which is not unlike a stepping one. Again, someone might misstep, turn an ankle, feel faint or dizzy, be suffering from a head cold or sinus condition, or have a foot or leg injury or recent surgery. If they are unable to place their full weight on their lower leg, foot, or ankle, the grab bar will provide the support they need to enter or leave the shower or bath safely.

There are other places in the home where the strategic vertical grab bar is important – going in and out of any exterior door and going to and from the garage (especially of steps are involved). We need to look at grab bars as the safety devices they are rather than as a sign that people need them. How often do we really need to wear a seatbelt while driving, but we use them every time we get behind the wheel anyway?

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