Bathroom Design Tips for Caregivers: Keeping Seniors Safe While Aging in Place

The other day, I slipped in the shower and took a bad fall. Aside from getting a bit banged up, the experience also left me shaken emotionally: I felt really vulnerable, both mentally and physically. Even though I’m in good shape, my hip really took a beating. But it’s made me realize just how dangerous a bathroom can be—for anyone, really, but especially for older adults.

Bathroom Design Tips For Seniors Aging In Place In San FranciscoThe other day, I slipped in the shower and took a bad fall. Aside from getting a bit banged up, the experience also left me shaken emotionally: I felt really vulnerable, both mentally and physically. Even though I’m in good shape, my hip really took a beating. But it’s made me realize just how dangerous a bathroom can be—for anyone, really, but especially for older adults.
Without fast reflexes, strong muscles and bones, and fast healing capabilities, a fall in the shower can be really dangerous. After I’ve gotten a slip-resistant mat for my own tub this weekend, I’ll be sure to stop off at my grandmother’s house to ensure she has the same—and see which of these tips I can implement to make her bathroom safer.

How to Create a Safer Bathroom for Older Adults

Falls in the bathroom often have serious consequences for aging loved ones. In America, around 1.6 million seniors need emergency medical attention for falls and related injuries every year. From that number, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) states that more than 80% of senior falls occur inside the bathroom—making it the riskiest place at home for older adults.
Thankfully, enhancing bathroom safety doesn’t need to be super expensive or a huge undertaking. With the addition of a few simple features, caregivers can help raise a bathroom’s level of safety significantly. Familiarizing yourself with these common issues related to bathroom safety will not only help prevent falls and injuries, but can increase your aging loved one’s independence.  

Consider bathroom location and layout

Think about how you can create the most mobility for your loved one at home. For example, if their home has two floors, ideally there should be a bathroom on both levels to optimize accessibility.

  • Find out which bathroom they use the most and focus safety efforts there first. (You can use the same tools to revamp the second one after.)
  • Make sure there’s more than enough space inside the bathroom for your loved one to move around to accommodate current or future use of a cane, walker, or wheelchair.
  • Remove any items that take up space but don’t serve an important purpose. (For example, you might be able to get rid of an unused cabinet or bulky home decor accessories.)

Install grab bars for balance

Installing grab bars is one of the simplest, most affordable ways to increase the safety in your loved one’s bathroom. Try to choose ones with a grippy texture (to allow for better grasp), and that can handle sufficient weight—upwards of about 300 pounds is good—and place them strategically to best help your loved one.

  • Install some next to the toilet so your loved one can use it for support when sitting and standing.
  • You’ll also want to place several grab bars inside the shower or tub: this can help your loved one step into the tub and lower themselves down to a seated position.
  • When using the shower, grab bars can also help provide crucial support for standing while washing. And, for additional stability, place a few grab bars outside the shower to facilitate stepping in and out.
  • You might also consider placing some grab bars along the hallway leading to the bathroom.

Make the toilet seat comfortable and accessible

Having the right toilet seat height can make it much easier for your aging loved one to sit and stand.

  • To raise the toilet seat to best suit your loved one, get a seat extender (also called a riser).
  • Toilet paper dispensers can be notoriously finicky—opt for one that can be changed using just one hand.
  • Ensure the toilet paper dispenser is easily reachable while sitting without stretching or bending.  

Improve tub and shower safety

The majority of showers and tubs in American homes are not designed with the safety of older adults in mind. In addition to installing grab bars both in and out of the shower, there are other ways to make this space safer.

  • Place a shower seat inside the shower stall. This cost-effective chair lets your loved one sit down while they shower, making it easier to wash without needing to balance. (Make sure there are grab bars installed near the shower seat to make sitting and standing easier.)
  • Getting a shower head that’s adjustable and can be hand-held works great with a shower seat.
  • A slip-resistant coating or slip-resistant bath mat is an absolute must for the tub and shower.
  • For options that are a little more involved, you can either modify your loved one’s tub to be a walk-in or install a roll-in shower. Roll-in showers are particularly helpful for wheelchair users: their entrance is completely flat and their doorways can be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair or walker (36 inches).

Create as much light as possible.

Many bathrooms are poorly lit. This can be a hazard for your aging loved one, especially for those who struggle with sight issues.

  • Bright lights with large switches in easy-to-reach places can make a huge difference to your loved one’s ability to see clearly inside the bathroom.
  • The hallway leading to the bathroom should also be well-lit with switches near entrances of both the bathroom and other nearby main rooms.
  • The color of the walls can also affect the room’s brightness, with light colors being most helpful.
  • Be aware of shiny materials that can create a glare and make things harder to see.

By choosing safety features tailored to your loved one’s needs—many of which don’t require a ton of money or major renovations—you can greatly increase the safety of their bathroom. Try starting off slowly by installing some well-placed grab bars, a slip-resistant tub mat, and a toilet seat extender—then consider which other features might benefit your loved one the most, both now and in the future. Creating a safer bathroom for your aging loved one will not only help to prevent falls, but will support them in feeling more independent as they continue to age in place.
If you’re unsure how to offer the best support and safety for your aging loved one, Institute on Aging offers compassion-based resources and programs to help. To learn more, contact us today.

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