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Most residential bathrooms aren’t designed for aging in place

Our bathroom is both the most critical and the most dangerous room in our home. When it comes to remaining in the home, our bathroom is often the deciding factor.

Please recall the bathroom image above. Imagine while recovering from surgery that you or a loved one need to use a wheel chair. What would it be like to wash your hands? What about more complex tasks such as using the toilet or bathing?

Traditional bathroom layout makes it difficult for a person with a permanent or temporary disability to provide personal cares to themselves. Many bathrooms have common problems, including:

  • Door entry width is too narrow for a person who uses crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair
  • Size of floor space does not permit a wheel chair to be maneuvered or turned around
  • Toilet location inhibits access to bathroom fixtures
  • No knee space below counter/sink
  • Reinforcement for grab bar installation is missing

We often do not recognize these problems with our bathrooms until we experience challenges with those most personal of tasks. In the absolute worst situations, we continue to perform those tasks despite the environmental dangers in our bathrooms. Ultimately becoming injured because of a fall.

What can we do about it?

Remodel our bathrooms long before the need arises. Not only will these changes benefit you or a loved one with a disability, bathrooms modified for accessibility benefit both children and pregnant women. For example, grab bars can provide balance support for a woman who is in the later stages of pregnancy or small children who do not have fully developed balance.

The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina University provides guidance on features to include in bathroom design or renovation Residential Rehabilitation, Remodeling and Universal Design.

But I don’t want my house to look like a hospital

The primary reason homes lose their aesthetic appeal when incorporating accessibility is because home owners typically wait to make the changes until they are needed. At that point, they are likely living on a fixed income and unable to afford to retrofit their home for accessibility. As a result, home modifications are provided by organizations who have a mission of serving low income people. Because of limited budgets, these organization are unable to provide retrofits for accessibility that maintain the visual appeal of the home.

Below are some images to help demonstrate elements of universally designed bathrooms that are both attractive and usable for people who may need assistive technologies such as crutches, wheelchairs, or walkers. Universal design is the practice of constructing devices and environments that can be used by people of all sizes and abilities. Please note that none of the examples below provide a perfect illustration of universal design. They should only serve as a guide. Please consult a contractor with expertise in universal design for a consultation on incorporating universal design in your bathroom.

The image above shows a large floor space and a roll in shower. The shower also contains a hand held shower head that can be accessed from a seated position. A person who uses a wheel chair would likely be able to bathe independently in this bathroom.

The image above shows a bathroom counter and sink with knee space available for a person who uses a wheelchair.

I was visiting with someone about remodeling their bathroom. I suggested that this would be a great time to add grab bars. Her response was: “I am not that old”. Grab bars are often thought to only be necessary for people with disabilities and older people. Nothing could be further from the truth. Grab bars are useful for people experiencing short term illness or injury, pregnant women, or even children.

Some people are concerned about how grab bars will impact the appearance of their bathroom. The good news is that grab bars can be disguised as soap dishes (see below), toilet paper dispensers, or towel rods.


What’s next?

Our bathroom is only one of the many rooms that needs to be considered as we plan for aging in place. Would you like to read more? Please check out What is needed for aging in place? for additional information.

Additional Readings and References:

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