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If your relative is having difficulty moving around their home because of poor balance or decreased mobility, it may be helpful to consider installing support rails.

Grab rails (also known as grab bars) will provide extra confidence when negotiating steps or stairs, or when changing position and needing leverage, such as when getting in and out of the bath.

On this page, we explain:

1. What are grab rails for?
2. What are the different types of grab rail?
3. Grab rails for the bathroom and shower
4. Rails for the stairs
5. Grab rails for front and back doors with steps
6. Where to fix grab rails
7. How to fit rails in the best position for your relative
8. Getting help with installation

What are grab rails for?

If your relative isn’t as mobile as they used to be, and they’re holding on to furniture and the walls when they move around the home, it’s a clear sign that they need more support.

First, check their mobility equipment to help you understand their mobility needs. If they don’t have any, or what they do have doesn’t seem suitable, you could arrange for a mobility needs assessment by a physiotherapist or occupational therapist. Alternatively, if you feel confident about making a good choice, you could buy a stick or walking frame to provide the support your relative needs.

Once you’re happy they have suitable mobility equipment if needed, the next step is to consider additional support rails.

What are the different types of grab rail?

There’s a wide range of rails on the market in different shapes, sizes and materials.

Here are a few rules of thumb to apply when considering which rails will best suit the location and your relative.

Wooden rails

These work well for stairs, as you can get them cut to shape and jointed to provide a continuous run. The cylindrical shape of the traditional mop-stick handrail also provides a good grip for most hands. You can paint it to match the décor.

Metal newel-post rails

These rails fix on to the newel post, which is generally positioned at the bottom of the stairs. This type of rail twists so it fixes on to two facings. It’s excellent for supporting the person until they can get a grip on the main stair rail.

Single straight metal grab rails

You can buy metal rails in different lengths, from 300 to 900mm. They’re typically available in white, but you can find different colours to blend in with the decor if required. Generally, a 300-450mm rail works well at the front door, or at level changes around the home, for example if there is a step up or down between rooms.

Plastic grab rails

These work best in the bathroom, particularly around the bath and shower area. Added advantages of plastic rails are that they can:

  • have a raised surface to prevent wet hands from slipping
  • be modular in design and be joined to give a tailored continuous rail, which can be designed to flow around a corner or, for example, to lead into a shower area
  • come in a wide range of colours, which is useful if your relative has low vision and will benefit from a rail colour that contrasts with the background wall. For people with dementia, a strong contrast colour will help them to locate the rail.

Grab rails for the bathroom and shower

The bathroom is the most obvious place for support rails, as people are moving in and out of the bath or shower, when it can be wet and slippery. Without support, your loved one can feel vulnerable, and falls can be particularly hazardous in this area. Plastic rails are the safest option in a wet area, especially if you choose one with a raised grip to prevent hands from slipping.

Grab bars can also help provide stability next to the toilet, when adjusting clothing or for the transfer on and off the seat. For some people, a rail next to the hand basin will also provide extra support if their balance is poor when standing.

Health and safety recommendations are that metal rails in the bathroom should be earth bonded for protection against electrical incidents.

Rails for stairs

If your relative needs additional support on the stairs and has only one rail, then consider installing a second one.

It should run the length of the stairs, and best practice would be to butt and join the ends when the rail needs to run around a corner or up a second flight. This will provide continuous support and look more aesthetically pleasing, too.

The rail should also extend beyond the bottom and top of the stairs to provide a handhold on the level surface. If the wall ends suddenly, or if there’s a door at either end of the stairs, consider installing a short vertical rail so your relative can move their hand from the stair rail to a short rail on the landing to enable them to get their balance.

For existing rails, check that your relative can get a good grip on the rail and that it’s in the right place for support. If you can see that they’re having difficulty gripping their rail (it might be too wide or too square, for example), consider changing it to a more traditional round rail, known as a mop stick.

For changes in level between rooms, read our advice for installing a rail next to a step.

Stairs are a particularly risky area for falls, so it’s important to take care to make them as safe as possible. Check out our page with more information on stair safety.

Grab rails for front and back doors with steps

It makes sense to have additional rails next to the front and back door if there are steps leading up to them, as well as on uneven paths or steps within the garden area. They are especially important here if the area becomes slippery in wet weather.

For doors with a wooden frame, position a rail on the frame itself, close to the door. However, rails can’t be fixed on to PVC door frames, which are frequently found in modern homes or when doors and frames have been updated. In this case, you’ll need to fix the grab rail to the adjacent wall. This means it may be more difficult to find a good position close enough to the door to provide support when negotiating the doorstep.

Where to fix grab rails

Rails are generally fixed on to a wall, but if the wall’s not strong enough to do this safely, you can find rails that are attached to both the wall and floor, or to the floor alone.

Solid brick or block walls will provide a good fixing. It may be difficult to get a good, solid fixing on a plasterboard wall. Your builder should advise, and you may need to consider a backing board, which can provide a more solid base but may look less attractive.

You shouldn’t fix rails to a bathroom floor that has been sealed and made waterproof, as it will destroy the seal and potentially become costly to repair. Similarly, floor fixings aren’t suitable when there is underfloor heating in the bathroom.

How to find the best rail position for your relative

Fixing a rail for support

If you want a rail to provide support when carrying out an activity, such as standing to wash in the shower, or next to the toilet for a gentleman standing to use it, a good length to go for is 300-450mm.

Ask your relative to hold the rail in the centre, then hold the rail on the wall at the same height as their elbow and slightly in front. Make sure your relative doesn’t reach too far ahead. This will mean there’s a good amount of rail above and below the handhold. Mark the wall with a pencil for fixing.

To identify the position of a horizontal rail to push up on, for example when getting up from the toilet, ask your relative to sit down. Position the horizontal rail just under their elbow so it’s easy to push up on.

Fixing a rail in the bathroom

Rails in the bathroom should always be positioned horizontally or vertically, never at an angle.

Horizontal rails work well to lead the person into an area, for example a shower, or for pushing up on from the toilet.

Vertical rails work well when the person is standing but needs a handhold when carrying out an activity, for example when adjusting clothing at the toilet or for balance in the shower when reaching down to wash their feet.

You may need to place one horizontal rail to provide standing assistance, and then another vertical rail for holding on for balance. This is a good combination next to the toilet or a shower seat.

It’s not recommended to have long lengths of rail along corridors. Your relative will be better off in the long term if you encourage them to use a walking aid.

Fixing a rail on stairs

Match the new rail to the same height as the rail on the opposite side. If this rail feels too high or too low for your relative, you can adjust it accordingly.

Fixing a rail next to a step

1. Ask your relative to stand at the bottom of the step, poised to step up.

2. Ask your relative to hold the rail close to one end, with the rest of the rail leading away from the hand.

3. Position it on the wall at bent elbow height and mark the wall at that end for fixing.

4. If there is a deep step or a number of steps, position the rail at an angle parallel to the steps and mark the wall at the other end.

5. If there is only one step and your relative can reach the rail without overbalancing, then the rail should be vertical. Mark the position of the top of the rail on the wall.

Repeat the method at the top of the step(s). If there are several steps, and your relative has to reach to the wall to hold the rail, they may be at risk of overbalancing. In this instance, it’s best to choose a rail that starts at the top step and runs down to the bottom step, much like a stair rail.

Getting help with installation

Many local councils run a handyperson service, which may be able to help with installing rails for your relative. You can find links to local-authority services for older people in our care services directory.

Also visit Which? Trusted Traders to find reliable, trusted local traders.

More information

Page last reviewed: December 2016
Next review due: May 2018