Res and Rec: Suction Cup Grab Bars, Oh My!

Heralded as a convenient way to add safety to bathrooms for folks young and old, I am amazed at the popularity of this potentially dangerous product.  Suction cup grab bars (SCGB) became popular within the past 10 years and have quickly become available at most department stores, even the Big Box stores.  The features now include a “red” or “green” light indicator that is supposed to alert you if there is a break in the suction.  Here are my Reservations and Recommendations for the SCGB.

Falling Sign

Reservations:

  • What happens when a user of the SCGB fails to look below the suction cup attachment to see the color of the indicator before using the toilet, shower, or tub?  The person must check it EVERY time before use and be able to make the corrections needed.
  • An elderly patient once told me that she only used the SCGB for “light support.”  The problem is that when a she would reach out to hold onto something and suddenly start to fall, the object she would be clinging to must be able to sustain more than the forces of her body weight.  In general, a person seeking a grab bar in the first place probably has some kind of weakness or balance issue.  This person requires security 100% of the time in what he or she is grasping onto and nothing less.
  • Suction cup attachment devices require a clean, smooth surface so as not to break the suction.  In time with temperature changes and wear, the suction can weaken anyways.  We don’t have to watch many YouTube videos to see that virtually everyone is attaching the bars to whatever surface that is available:  a wall (textured by application of paint), a square of tile (that may have a glaze with a design on it or be adhered to the wall with only adhesive), a fiberglass tub surround (that easily becomes scratched with cleaning and use over time), or a porcelain fixture such as a toilet that can weep with moisture thus breaking the seal, and so on.  Any of these factors can lead to a product fail and the SCGB falling off or sliding down during use.
  • The bottom line is that over time a person will forget to check the adherence of the SCGB to its attachment surface EVERY TIME, before EVERY USE.
  • Grab bars are intended to be professionally installed into a wooden stud behind the drywall/plaster wall or a header board that is attached to the wall.  Even drywall screws (offered in grab bar kits!) cannot substitute for this gold standard affirmed by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.  A SCGB does not meet this standard.
  • Modular homes and recreational vehicles with manufactured walls may be textured, bend/bow with heavy pressure, or simply be too thin to provide enough structural support for either SCGB or traditional grab bars.
  • Saying that a SCGB is portable, that you can take it with you when you travel, is adding to the potential for something to go wrong.  Very likely when used at home, the person will have inspected where the SCGB will go in that living situation and decided on the best use, location and so on.  There are simply too many variables to consider when away from home to rely on a questionable device.  For example, does the hotel bathroom have wallpaper that can pull away from the wall?  Did the user remember to clean the wall surface with soap and water or an alcohol wipe before attempting to affix the SCGB?
  • When either the SCGB is 1) applied on a diagonal or 2) includes a hinged pair of SCGB, the user increases the potential application of twisted forces when pulling on the device.  Increased contact/security is required in these situations.  I am not aware of any appreciable design modifications or installation instructions offered for diagonal or hinged devices.
  • Testimonials from my own patients and online product reviews concur that at some point the SCGB loosens, slides or falls off.  This poses incredible danger when it occurs at a most in opportune moment.  Have I mentioned the man whose shoulder punched a hole in the drywall as he fell from a poorly installed “grab bar?”
  • Look at the satisfaction ratings for SCGB online via websites such as Amazon.com.  They are all over the place!

Recommendations:

  • If you or your loved one needs something temporary or portable and are seeking extra security to access a bathtub, consider purchasing a tub rail.  A bathtub rail attaches over the edge of the tub with rubber-lined panels that are tightened around the edges of the tub securely by hand.  They come in different heights to make sure the person using it can grasp it easily at a standing height.  Tub rails can also provide an extra hand-hold for persons for whom it is still safe to get down into the tub. You can use a tub rail with or without a shower chair.  (However, it cannot be used with a tub transfer bench that extends out over the edge of the tub!)  Here are two samples:  Drive Medical Steel Clamp On Tub Rail and Duro-Med Premium Tub Grab Bar.
  • Professionally install metal grab bars into studs (which are the wooden 2 x 4s behind the drywall or plaster) in the wall.  Experienced contractors know strategies that will work with molded, surround tub enclosures as well.  Look for grab bars with a diamond-pattern or similar texture along its surface that can help reduce slippage when grasping the bar.  Many styles are now available in a variety of colors, lengths, and diameters.  If a person has severely arthritic hands for example, consider a grab bar that has a smaller diameter to make it easier for him or her to grasp.
  • Request a handicapped accessible room when making a room reservation for a hotel.  These are often outfitted with walk-in showers and grab bars at no extra cost.
  • Sit to bathe and take your shower chair with you when you travel.  Two Step Solutions will soon provide an excellent foldable shower chair for you and your loved ones!  Remember to install a hand held shower when sitting to bathe so the person using it can get away from the overhead spray, reach everywhere with the water, and avoid getting soap in his or her eyes.  Adjust the legs for a comfortable seat height and be sure to add a non-slip bath mat both inside and outside of the tub to further prevent slip-and-falls.
  • For even greater stability in a bathroom with a tub, use a tub (transfer) bench.  The seat extends our over the edge of the tub making it easier to sit, slide over, and get into or out of the tub area.  The opposite side of the platform usually has a built-in armrest or handle for extra support.  The tips for non-slip mats and adjusting the seat height as noted above apply here as well.  Adjust the legs so that the tub bench is level.  (Note:  this will not work when there is a sliding door enclosure!  Use a shower chair and grab bars -OR- remove the doors and replace them with a shower curtain.)  Here are two samples of benches:  Transfer Bench and Drive Medical Padded Seat Transfer Bench.
  • For longer term solutions, consider modifying the tub with a cutaway that allows the person to walk into the tub instead of raising one’s legs up-and-over the edge.  Here is an example of a tub conversion.  Or remodel the bathroom to include either:  1) a shower stall with a minimal threshold to step over as he or she accesses the shower or 2) a walk-in tub with a swing-a-way access door.
  • Overall to maintain independence for everyday activities:  keeping active is the best measure to prevent falls and injuries.  Bathe when alert and rested, ask for help when needed, make the modifications that are necessary, and get on with enjoying the rest of the day!

So glad you stopped by for this important and potentially life-saving discussion.  For a personal home safety assessment, ask your Doctor for a referral to an occupational therapist.  Have an experience to share with grab bars?  Please share it in the  “Comments” below.

Take care, Julie, O.T.

 

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