According to the CDC, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), and many other researchers, the bathroom is the riskiest place within the home for an injury-causing accident for elderly people. With increased age comes increased risk as well. The bathroom is also one of the rooms that can be updated the most, and fairly inexpensively, to improve functionality, safety, and convenience. Here are a few recommendations to consider that fit all budget types when preparing the home’s bathrooms for aging in place.
Preventing Slips, Trips, and Falls
Slipping and falling is the number one way a person gets injured in the bathroom. The number one cause of slipping and falling in the bathroom is from the floor rugs. The small rugs around the sink and toilet are the cause of a majority of the fall-related injuries in the bathroom. Many people go for the soft and high pile rugs. These are the worst kind of bathroom mats to have. Low-pile and non-skid mats can reduce the chances of a person tripping. There are alternatives to bathmats that include textured tape around the bathtub for when a person gets in or out. As unappealing as a carpet in a bathroom sounds, indoor/outdoor carpeting is the safest flooring for the elderly in bathrooms. It does need to be replaced often, and the bathroom should be well ventilated to avoid the growth of molds and mildew.
Water on the floor is another major concern and why it is important to have low-pile fixed mats and the installation of grab bars in key places all around the bathroom. Grab bars should be next to the toilet and on both sides of the shower as well as one along the wall just outside of the shower. There are also vertical poles that can be installed for added safety and better stability for seniors who require support to stand.
Curbless showers can be installed in just about any bathroom. They are the safest way for an elderly person to bathe and can even be wheelchair accessible. They are, as their name suggests, curbless; they have no ledge to step over, thereby reducing the risk of a trip and fall. They even have doors and can come equipped with benches. If a bench is not the desired option, there is enough room to place a fold-up shower bench or portable seat made for bathing. Most curbless showers are also designed with special detachable shower heads that can be adjusted in height as well as spray type.
One of the most appealing features of a curbless shower is the size. Traditional shower/tub combinations are only 36” wide. Maneuvering within a tight space is a major cause for slipping. For some people, it will become impossible as they age due to mobility or strength concerns to maneuver in a shower/tub combination. This is particularly true for when it becomes necessary to have help or the use of a wheelchair is needed. The curbless shower can be prefabricated or custom built depending on personal preferences, but these units are some of the most versatile and desirable when it comes to improving bathrooms for aging in place.
Prevent Scalds and Burns
Older skin is more fragile and susceptible to burns. In addition to changing out faucets with knobs for ones with paddles or levers to better adjust water temperature, adding an anti-scald device to the hot water heater will reduce the risk of injury. This device will prevent the water from reaching the higher temperatures that burn delicate skin within seconds. A study conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH) found that 41% of all homes had the hot water thermostat setting on their water heater too high.
Burns are a serious risk for injury. According to the same NIH study, burns cause around 100 deaths per year and around 1,500 admissions to the hospital. Most anti-scald devices are between $100-$200 and are easy to install.
With every aging in place modification, the bathroom becomes a safer place. Changes can be made all at once with a major bathroom renovation led by an aging in place specialist, or changes can be made gradually as the needs arise. Some of these changes could also include:
- Adding additional storage nooks in the shower to make shampoos and soaps easier to reach
- Widening the door jams to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs
- Higher toilets with seats that do not slam OR toilet attachments that raise the seat height and add bars for support
- Pressure balanced shower/tub valves
- Improved lighting
- Lowered sinks
Any aging in place changes made to bathrooms enhance the home and make it better suited to the unique needs of an elderly person and those who care for them. The bathroom is the most dangerous room within a home; it pays dividends to ensure it is the safest.
Bawden, D. What is Design for Independent Living? National Association of Home Builders. Available at: http://www.nahb.org/en/learn/designations/certified-aging-in-place-specialist/related-resources/what-is-design-for-independent-living.aspx. Last Visited May 1, 2016.
Plivka, B. J., Wills, C.E., Darragh, A., Lavender, S., Sommerich, C., Stredney, D. (November 2015). Environmental Health and Safety Hazards Experienced by Home Health Care Providers. Workplace Health Safety, 63(11): 512-522. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4675459/. Last visited May 1, 2016.
The Center for Universal Design. College of Design. North Carolina State University. (2003). Curbless Showers: An Installation Guide. Available at: https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/pubs_p/docs/Curbless.pdf. Last Visited May 1, 2016.