By Sheryl Jean, AARP August 20223
These Bathroom Updates are for now and later as you Age in Place.
Bathrooms present a high risk of falls and need special attention. The risk of falling rises with age as people experience decreased mobility, reduced eyesight, muscle weakness and other conditions. Each year, more than 10 percent of adults 65 and older have falls that result in injuries.
Falls happen mostly at home and mainly in the bathroom, which can be a slippery space with hard surfaces. Bathroom design upgrades — from small and inexpensive to big and bold — can make a difference and help prevent falls.
“The great news is that aging in place and universal interior design has really come such a long way,” says Caroline Danielson, director of showrooms for Ferguson Bath, Kitchen & Lighting Gallery. “We see a lot of manufacturers and homeowners really thinking about how to design for everybody. It doesn’t have to feel utilitarian.”
It’s not just about fall prevention. Experts stress the importance of thinking about the bathroom as a flexible space to suit your needs now and in the future.
“Anyone at any time can have something happen that prevents them from fully using their bathroom if it’s not designed accessibly,” says Jamie Gold, a certified aging in place specialist and a certified Mayo Clinic wellness coach based in San Diego. “You should do it regardless of your age or athleticism. It’s life-proofing your home.”
Kraig Odden, 57, renovated two bathrooms in the St. Paul, Minnesota, condo he shares with his husband with a nod toward features they don’t need now but may need later. In the master bathroom, they converted the tub and shower to a walk-in shower with a low threshold, a built-in bench, a hand sprayer and a grab bar. They installed a reinforcement in the wall — called a block — next to the toilet and shower entry for a future grab bar.
“The impetus was to replace the main bathroom tub/shower with a walk-in shower, and along the way, there was the realization that we had an opportunity to make it friendlier to aging and ease of use down the road,” Odden says. “We wanted more comfort and accessibility.”
Here are 14 more ideas to help make your bathroom suitable now and later:
Bathe in glory
Installing a handheld sprayer in your shower (or tub) is “one of the simplest things you can do to add wellness to your home” and it’s DIY-friendly, Gold says. It helps people who aren’t as agile as they once were either due to aging or a mishap.
Similarly, adding a built-in bench or a portable chair to a shower helps people who are frail or unsteady on their feet.
Curbless showers aren’t only designed for wheelchairs (but if you install a wheelchair-friendly curbless shower, the National Association of Home Builders suggests it should have at least a 60-inch turning radius). “It’s something less to trip on for someone who might have balance, fatigue or issues,” says Gold, the author of Wellness by Design: A Room-by-Room Guide to Optimizing Your Home for Health, Fitness + Happiness and New Bathroom Idea Book. Regardless of age, “if your back is aching after 36 holes of golf on vacation and you’re not as flexible or agile as usual, having a shower designed for flexibility will help you.” A curbless shower will set you back $6,000 to $10,000.
Vincent “Vinny” Catalano, 62, of Sacramento, California, installed a curbless shower with a handheld sprayer and built-in bench in the bathroom “with the presence of mind for aging in place,” he says. “There’s no door on the shower; you just walk right in.”
If you want to go all out and like the open concept, consider a wet room. The entire waterproof bathroom is barrier-free, with a curbless shower and freestanding tub sharing a drain, Danielson says. It will set you back an average of $9,000, according to home care site Angi.
If you can’t get rid of the tub because you love taking a bath, consider a walk-in bathtub. “We’re seeing bathtubs making a comeback [because] they provide hydrotherapy,” Danielson says. They fit in a standard space, so a lot of remodeling isn’t needed, and manufacturers have made improvements so they’re more attractive, drain faster and come with a handheld shower option, she says. It can cost as little as $2,000 for a standard model or more than $20,000 for a luxury one.
Let’s potty talk
Bidet toilets have skyrocketed in popularity since the coronavirus pandemic because you don’t need toilet paper. They’re also more hygienic and help older adults remain independent. They can come with heated seats, air deodorizers or a night-light. Prices range from about $40 for a bidet attachment for a toilet to several hundred dollars or more for a bidet toilet with a heated seat, warm water and an air deodorizer.
If you’re not ready for a bidet, consider a comfort height toilet that’s 2-3 inches higher than a traditional one. They may cost slightly more than a traditional toilet, but they’re better for older adults who have difficulty standing from a seated position or anyone with back or knee pain.
Gold recommends new slip-resistant floor tiles that are rated higher for use on bathroom and shower floors. Last year, the tile industry revised its slip resistance rating system, called the coefficient of friction (COF), for hard flooring surfaces such as ceramic tile and stone to help reduce slips and falls. Look for tiles designed for use in wet bathrooms with a COF rating of at least 0.42.
A bunch of bathroom features can be controlled electronically to make life easier. Here are some smart technology features home experts like:
Motorized window coverings that can be controlled by your voice or an app are good for hard-to-reach windows above a tub or in a slick shower.
Touch- or motion-activated faucets are helpful for people with arthritis or Parkinson’s disease.
Bathroom exhaust fans with humidity or motion sensing can automatically turn on and off. Some feature a night-light. They help keep a bathroom clean and safe by removing steam and preventing moisture and mold buildup.
Shine a light
Danielson, a certified lighting consultant, recommends layers of lighting in the bathroom — a lighted mirror with overhead lighting. Make sure the light is sufficient to see water on the floor, but install dimmers to adjust for daytime and night, she says.
Better yet, circadian lighting — an automated system synced to your body’s internal clock based on the amount, intensity and color of light — can help people who have difficulty sleeping, Gold says. Some circadian light systems are app-driven or tied to smart-home technology.
Catalano installed a sun tube above the shower that brings in enough natural light that no artificial light is needed during the day. He says he chose a sun tube over a skylight because the fixture needed to tunnel down from the roof through the attic to the single-story house.
“Think about the overall design of the bathroom,” Danielson stresses. “Make sure you have a fluid space. Make choices today that can stay with you for the long haul.”