Bathroom Safety Tips

As a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) remodeling professional, I work with clients looking to improve safety in their home or prepare themselves for senior years. One of the components we’re asked to install most often? Grab bars, particularly in the bathroom.

As part of a full remodel of the main bath in a 1927 Shorewood home, we installed blocking for grab bars, something that is a standard practice for us. The owners were happy about the blocking, but opted to hold off grab bar installation “until they needed them.” “Needing them” came much sooner than anyone expected. Within a few months of completion, our client fell and broke her ankle. Without grab bars in the tub and shower, she wasn’t going to be able to stay in their home. In this case, nothing special was needed besides the bars themselves. This bathroom was pre-equipped for them. What might have happened had it not been so? What if there was no blocking there?

Before we delve into that, let’s consider the bars themselves first.

The Visual Part: Better Looking Grab Bars

It used to be that grab bars were institutional-looking blobs of stainless steel that were stuck on the walls. Not ideal! Now, grab bars are available in nicely-styled pieces that look more like towel bars than grab bars. Several makers, including Elio, Moen, Kohler and Invisia, have introduced many stylish pieces to enhance bath safety. No longer do safety and assistive devices need to look like they were stolen from a hospital. The pieces available today can be incorporated in any home decor.

The Technical Part: Support is Critical!

To be usable as a grab bar, the bar and it’s mounting need to be capable of supporting 250 Ibs. Wouldn’t do much good if the bar held up but came off the wall, right? Drywall anchors typically max-out at 50 or 75 Ibs., maybe a bit more in cement board. To be certain of secure mounting, manufacturers recommend the grab bar mounting flange be screwed to a stud or blocking capable of carrying these loads.

Support Isn’t There When or Where You Need It

Studs are most commonly spaced on 16” centers. Grab bars typically run in 12” increments, which means if you can find one stud, you probably won’t find another on a 12” increment until 4’ away. This is longer than most bars. Blocking behind the walls? Not likely, particularly in an older home.

Adding a stud or blocking to a tiled surface can be really fun, if you like the idea of busting large holes in walls. It’s a daunting task. Most wouldn’t even consider it. Sometimes, this can be attacked from the other side of the wall, but then there’s drywall, plaster repair and repainting. With all that, an $80 to $150 grab bar winds up costing hundreds to install. There’s something wrong with that picture.

The Secret Weapon? The Alternative to Studs

The “secret weapon” is the Moen SecureMount anchor. I personally installed SecureMount anchors in a 1938 Wauwatosa home recently. Being of that era, I didn’t think it likely there would be any blocking in the walls for mounting grab bar and I was correct, there wasn’t. The tiled tub and shower walls were in pristine condition; access from behind would have been a real mess. SecureMount anchors were by far the best solution. The install was a bit tough, only because it required boring 1-1/4″ holes through tile and its mud base, about 1-⅛” total thickness. But compared to the alternative? We installed three anchors in the wall, as we did manage to catch one stud after all. It was all done in 3 hours!

In a short time and with a bit of clean-up, our client had a strategically-placed grab bar and a hand grip in his shower that raised his confidence and improved his safety. And as a bonus, the beauty of the bars themselves pleased the client immensely. “They look fantastic, like they’ve always been there,” he said. Truly, they fit the home’s 1938 classic decor perfectly.

Double Benefit: Grab Bars that Double As Something Else

Genevieve Liesemeyer of Pillar Designs, a specialist in design for senior living, points out that “When people slip they naturally grab for the first thing that is close. That might be an insecure item like a towel bar.” Great point! Since new grab bar designs look like and therefore could double as towel bars, we have a solution that provides greater safety and function in the bath with one piece.

Beyond towel bars, there are assistive devices that double as shampoo shelves, paper holders and more. “Assistive devices” is a general category that includes grab bars, hand grips and much more. The possibilities? Virtually endless. With today’s designs and some ingenuity, almost any decorative hardware item in a bath or anywhere else, can become a safety device.