Activities that are easy now may become more difficult in the future: Going up and down stairs, standing up from sitting, getting in and out of the tub, catching your balance if you start to slip. . . . As you consider aging in place, it is wise to keep these issues in mind, particularly about the bathroom.
Structural considerations. To eliminate the need to climb stairs, the ideal is a full bathroom on the main level of the house. In addition, as we age, the likelihood of needing support increases. Whether a wheelchair or walker, or a spouse or paid caregiver is providing assistance, a spacious room is best.
Did you know the bathroom is the most dangerous room in the house? Eighty percent of falls occur in the bathroom on hard, sometimes slippery surfaces. Most falls occur in the process of sitting down on or getting up from the toilet, or getting in/out of the bath/shower.
Bathtub or shower? The most versatile design involves a water-friendly, nonslip floor with a drain, and no hard curb around the shower area. This allows for rolling a wheelchair into the shower and provides room for a helper. Even without such a radical makeover, it's easy to install a handheld showerhead and a built-in or portable bench in an existing bathroom to create a seated shower option.
If you need to soak—great for achy arthritic joints—consider a walk-in tub. These tubs have a watertight seal on a side door that allows you to walk in, sit on a bench, and then fill the tub to the desired height. Or have a dip cut into the side of an existing tub to lower the height for ease of stepping in and out.
Toilets and bidets. Purchasing a high toilet or adding an extender that raises the sitting surface greatly reduces the physical challenges of sitting down and getting up. Many people find a bidet adds to convenience and cleanliness. (Twisting to wipe our nether regions becomes more difficult with age.) Rather than ask for help, cleaning with water can improve hygiene while preserving dignity.
Other fall prevention strategies. You don't need a full remodel to improve safety. Installing grab bars beside the toilet and within and outside the bathing area is an easy and effective modification. Grab bars must be attached securely to the studs of the wall and be able to support 250–300 pounds. Installing nonslip flooring or applying antislip floor coatings for higher traction is also wise. Increased lighting will help visibility and reduce falls. In addition, lights installed on the wall instead of on the ceiling reduce the need to get on a ladder, and possibly fall, when changing a bulb.
How age friendly is your bathroom?
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Leslie Alin Tewes is a Geriatric, Disability & Medical Care Manager; Elder and Adult Care Advocate; Quality Improvement Specialist.