Improving home safety for seniors

DIY tips to save hundreds off contractor's price

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 17, 2010

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DIY tips to save hundreds off contractor's price

Bill and Kevin Burnett
Inman News™

Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series.

Q: My husband has a neurological disorder. His eye-hand coordination and strength are OK, but he has difficulty walking and his balance is lousy. Stairs are a challenge.

He is resisting installing (safety) equipment because he says he "isn't handicapped" and he doesn't want to go through the hassle of finding and hiring a contractor.

I think it's time for us to take some safety measures around the house.

We live in a split-level home with our bedroom on the second level. We have a master bathroom off the bedroom and a half bath on the ground level. The master bath has a jetted tub and tiled shower stall. He can navigate the shower fine, but forget about stepping over the edge of the tub.

I vaguely remember you guys wrote about installing grab bars in a shower. My husband's always been a pretty handy guy, and maybe he could do the work himself if I can convince him it should be done. Can you guys help?

A: Yes, we can. We're both getting a little long in the tooth, so improved accessibility of a home's features doesn't sound as bad as it used to. Aside from the aches and pains of late middle age, (we're rapidly approaching 60) each of us has a compromised nervous system.

Bill suffered a spinal cord injury 15 years ago. Kevin has multiple sclerosis. Bill's dexterity is limited by a spastic left hand. Kevin doesn't walk so well, has trouble with balance and can't stand for long periods of time. We don't complain, or let these potholes slow us down too much. Both of us continue to get satisfaction from doing our own home projects, to the extent we can.

So we think you should encourage your husband to get off his duff, do some work and make the house safer. In the process, he'll get loads of satisfaction from a job well done at a fraction of the contractor price. As an added bonus, your worries about his safety will decrease.

Our prescription: Install grab bars in the shower, handrails in the stairwell, and grab bars and elevated toilets in the bathrooms.

To install the shower grab bars you first need to decide where they go. Kevin just finished installing bars in his bathroom. He decided on three bars in his shower stall: one 2-foot vertical bar near the entrance, a 2-foot horizontal bar under the control valve and a 4-foot horizontal bar on the sidewall. He uses a shower seat, so the vertical bar assists him in getting into the shower and the two horizontal bars assist him in easing into and getting out of the chair.

To position the bars, your husband should mimic getting into the shower. We'd be willing to bet he's already using a handhold to steady himself when he goes over the shower curb. Next, he should stand in the shower.

A comfortable height for the bar will be 3 inches above where his knuckles meet the wall. Assuming he doesn't need to sit in the shower, one bar on the back wall should do the trick. Others can be added later if needed.

Grab bars are attached to the wall by flanges, each with three screws. To ensure a solid installation, try to screw the bar into the wooden wall studs. This isn't always possible, so a stout expanding wall anchor (known as a molly bolt) is a good alternative for securing the grab bar.

To drill through the tile you will need a hammer, a nail set, an electric drill and a special bit used for drilling through glass and tile. The bit should be a little larger than the diameter of the screws you use.

Hold the bar in position and mark the location of the holes with a felt-tip marker. Tap the nail set on each mark just enough to score the glazing on the tile. Be gentle so as not to crack the tile. The mark gives the drill bit a place to "bite" and keeps it from wandering. With the glass/tile bit, drill through the tile, cement board and drywall (or plaster).

If you hit wood, great. We like to drill a pilot hole into the stud to make installing the screw easier. Use a wood drill bit a little smaller than the diameter of the screw. For added ease, add a little bar soap on the threads.

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