When senior parents choose to remain in their own homes instead of downsizing or moving to a retirement center, making their home easier to navigate is an important step in “safety proofing” a home. Safety proofing means paying attention to those little things around the house that can cause senior parents to trip and injure themselves. Eliminating throw rugs, decluttering a room, and installing safety bars on tubs and in bathrooms are all ways in which a home can be made safer for a senior.
In homes with long halls or staircases, installing a handrail in also important. Handrails can provide a senior with a little bit of extra support and lessen the chance of an accidental fall.
Do’s and Don’ts you should know
Several years ago, a family member installed some safety rails leading up into my parents split level home. The rails and brackets were purchased at a Home Center and installed without any thought given to the current building code standards for stair rails. The rails worked fine for what they were until last week when my 80 year old Mom tripped and wildly grabbed for the rail on the way down. Unfortunately, instead of supporting her weight like they are supposed to, the metal brackets snapped in half and Mom fell down the staircase. Lucky for her, all she broke was a shoulder blade but it could have been much, much worse.
In newer homes, builders are expected to follow strict building code standards when constructing a staircase and handrail. The Universal Building Code (UBC) calls out for specifications that address the profile and the width of the rail, the height from the floor, the distance from the wall, the number of brackets and how closely they should be placed.
While you don’t need a building permit to install a safety rail in your parent’s home, following these guidelines will ensure that the rail can support the weight of your parent in case of a fall.
DO install the type of hand rail that is required by the UBC. The “bread loaf” profile is what most building codes now call for and are much easier to grab. Do NOT install a dowel type stair rail since these don’t offer much of a grip and slide through the hand much easier when falling.
DO provide for at least 1.5 inches of clearance space between the wall and the rail so that the rail can be grasped with the entire hand.
Do NOT install rails that swivel within the brackets.
DO set the height of the rail so that it is comfortable for your parents to reach and install the rails so they extend beyond the top and the bottom of the stairs.
DO install a continuous rail along both sides of the staircase.
Do NOT buy cheap brackets, assuming that all of them are the same. DO buy brackets that are rated for higher weights and are made of a durable metal. Buy plenty of brackets so that one bracket can be installed in every stud along the stair case.
DO sand and round off the edges to prevent injury.
DO install stair rails on both sides of the stair case and paint them in a contrast color so they can be easily seen.
DO provide for adequate lighting on the staircase. Do NOT make the staircase a catch all for keys, sunglasses, and doggie treats.
For more information about installing a safety rail for your parent’s home, call your local City Hall for a publication for stair rail standards. This publication from the ADAAG (American Diabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines) can also provide you with excellent guidelines for installing a stair rail.