Tips for Creating Accessible Bathroom Environments for Senior Living

It’s becoming increasingly important to design with aging in mind, especially with the population about to get significantly older. Similar to kitchens, bathrooms are also high-traffic areas where it’s imperative to create a safe, accessible, and functional environment for individuals as they age, whether they’re still at home or in a senior living community.

“The safe bathroom is an important feature when you’re considering aging in place,” says Sarah Reep, director of designer relations for MASCO Cabinetry—especially considering the fact that nearly 200,000 people are injured each year in their bathroom, according to the National Safety Council, with the most common accidents listed as slips, falls, and scalding from hot water.

Accessibility is key

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A bathroom trend Reep is seeing is for the shower, drain, and cabinet area to become more open and serviceable, thus providing more function, including for those using mobility devices.

An accessible lavatory has sufficient knee space, low mirrors, counter [space], and adequate space to approach, says Jeff Packard, vice president of Preconstruction Services at York, Pa.-based Poole-Construction. When designing a bathroom, he says, what’s needed is the ability to adapt products and environments to address changes in capability over time.

Doors should have strike-side clearance and maneuverable clearance areas for wheelchair approachability. “If you provide that now [when designing a bathroom], it can be accessible in the future,” says Manny Gonzalez, who designs 50+ communities for design firm KTGY Group, Inc.

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“We’re trying to think of things that allow the house to function the way a traditional house functions, but can be adaptable down the road,” he says. “It’s just spending a little more time now to save time and money in the future… if you’re trying to design a house that will be accessible in 10 to 15 years, there won’t have to be a costly retrofit.”

Bathtubs and showers

Bathrooms can become extremely dangerous due to slick, slippery surfaces, and one area in particular calls for special design: the bathtub/shower.

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Barrier-free showers are crucial, most designers agree.

Some architects are designing “snail showers,” where someone can walk right into a shower enclosure that’s in a “snail shell” formula. There’s no door, and it’s built in such a way as to prevent shower spray from getting out of the enclosure.

This design can take up a little more room, but can be better than showers or baths with high thresholds that require people to step (rather than walk) in, says Gonzalez.

In some cases, though, residents would rather have a shower that’s less accessible, rather than one that takes up more room, he says, or they might want the bathroom to be large enough so that they can install this type of shower at a later point.

For showers or tubs with thresholds, there are multiple products on the market meant to reduce the possibility of slipping when getting in or out.

Safeway Safety Step, LLC, for example, markets its products as “aging-in-place” tools. The company manufactures bathtub accessibility products like the Safeway Step, which converts an existing bathtub into a walk-in shower.

The company also has a Safeway Tub Door that allows people to retrofit their bathtub with a hinged door that opens up for a lower threshold.

It’s better for showers to have doors with shatterproof glass rather than curtains in case an individual needs something to grab on to, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association.

Other features for safer bathrooms include shower controls with scald-proof valves, and hand-held shower heads with a wall clip for the hose, says Packard.

Countertops and Storage Space

Bathroom storage space should be easily accessible for those with limited mobility.

One of MASCO Cabinetry’s brands, Merillat Cabinetry, provides “a lot of opportunity to create a landing surface and also an area to hold on to,” says Reep. “It can be created in a custom approach to solve a consumer’s needs, with a thicker top that hangs over a little bit, or that includes grab bar, or allows for a grab bar to be placed on a cabinet or wall on the other side.”

But the brand doesn’t matter as much as the solutions they feature, Reep continues: storage at middle height. “If you extend your arm out, not above the shoulder, and not bending your knees—that’s primary storage area,” she says.

Provide enough storage for items such as toilet paper, towels, makeup, vitamins, toiletries, etc.; “all of those items should be accessible where you’re not having to reach, stretch, bend—where it’s truly across from you,” says Reep.

Most of the time it’s preferable to have bathroom sinks embedded in countertop with cabinet space, because it provides support along with storage, she says, versus a pedestal or free-standing basin. The countertop surface should extend at least 12 inches on each side, although 18 inches is “ideal for placing items on the countertop and being able to access them while sitting or standing.”

Some countertops or cabinets have space in the front allowing wheelchairs to roll under the sink area, while some sinks are mounted to the wall to allow for mobility device accommodation.

Lighting, Flooring, and Toilets

Similar to in the kitchen, it’s important to consider wattage and location of lighting. Overhead lighting isn’t always the best because of how it casts shadows or may not sufficiently illuminate key areas. Including some light fixtures near the sink and mirror and close to the shower can be helpful.

Slip-resistant flooring can be used to help reduce the possibility of falls. SmartCells bathroom and shower fall protection tiles, which feature technology that provides a stable surface and cushioning technology, come in anti-slip removable squares that can be placed in strategic areas in the bathroom.

Toilets can be modified or installed so they’re at chair-height, to reduce the necessary range of motion.

Grab Bars and Other Hardware

Grab bars should be placed strategically around the bathroom in places where seniors will need them the most, including by the toilet and in the shower.

It’s better to use push or lever handles rather than knobs for individuals with arthritis, and many of MASCO Cabinetry’s sister company Delta Faucets’ designs feature easy-to-use faucets, including some with touch technology, which can be activated by a touch or tap anywhere on the handle.

None of these design features or products—even grab bars—have to look institutional, says Reep, as some manufacturers, including Delta Faucets, are producing stylish designs that coordinate grab bars with other hardware.

“An aging in place bathroom does not have to look like a hospital,” she says.

Written by Alyssa Gerace

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