How to Design an Accessible Bathroom for Older Adults

Candace Nelson
Written by Candace Nelson
Reviewed by Robert Tschudi
Updated March 29, 2022
Interior of bathroom for the elderly people
Photo: navintar / Adobe Stock

Making aging in place easier with these safety features

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Whether you’re planning for your golden years or making arrangements to keep a loved one safe at home, bathroom accessibility enhancements can help everyone feel safe and comfortable. Some adjustments will make it easier to access the restroom with wheelchairs or walkers, so older adults can safely age in place.

Injuries that occur in the bathroom are more frequent in older populations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For example, some bathrooms are small and require tight turns around fixtures that can be impossible with a walker or cane. To access most tubs or showers, you have to step up and over the ledge, which can pose a challenge for someone with limited mobility or balance issues. Thankfully, there are solutions from simple features to remodeling ideas that make your bathroom a safer space. 

Bathroom Safety Improvements for Older Adults

Interior of a bathroom for handicapped people
Photo: Rilueda / Adobe Stock

Safety adjustments don’t have to be complicated. Many of these swaps are so easy that you can do them yourself in minutes. For others, you’ll likely require the services of a local bathroom remodel contractor.

1. Remove or Replace Rugs

Soft bath mats and rugs make a tile floor in a bathroom feel cozy, but they commonly are made with a soft backing that makes them susceptible to slipping on a slick surface. To avoid mats sliding on a wet bathroom floor, replace soft rugs with non-slip rubber mats that will stay put. Alternatively, you can get rid of rugs entirely.

2. Install Non-Slip Flooring

Slick surfaces and mobility challenges do not mix, so if you have glossy tile or marble on your bathroom floor, you might want to replace it with non-slip tile. 

One quick and easy solution is purchasing textured surface strips that come on a roll and sticking them to the floor with adhesive. You can also apply a non-slip sealer to indoor tile surfaces to add texture to otherwise smooth floors.

3. Put a Non-Slip Mat in the Shower

Slippery surfaces in the tub or shower are dangerous for anyone. Prevent accidents with a $10 rubber mat on tub or shower floors. The grippy surface keeps everyone upright and safe.

4. Put Things Within Reach

Leave frequently used items within arm’s reach or in an easily accessible drawer. That way, you or your loved ones aren’t at risk of losing balance from stretching, bending, or walking across a wet floor to find something.

5. Install a Hand-Held Showerhead

It’s hard to rinse all the shampoo out of your hair when the showerhead is 3 feet away. Purchase a hand-held shower attachment or look for an adjustable showerhead to accommodate everyone’s showering needs.

6. Improve Lighting

Sunlight is good for moods, but it’s also good for safety. Many people find the quality of their vision decreases with age, so it's important to make sure the bathroom is well-lit. Change burnt-out light bulbs, switch out the window covering, or add more light fixtures to brighten up the space as needed. 

When replacing light fixtures, make sure they work with a wall switch or consider an easy tap-on solution instead of small knobs that require twisting.

7. Change Door Handles and Knobs

You shouldn’t have to put your whole body into turning a doorknob or yanking open a cabinet door. If the handles and knobs are sticky, it’s time to clean them or change them out. Consider swapping doorknobs for wide door levers that are easy to grasp, close, and open. 

Make sure the door handle and the knobs on any of the cabinets and sinks are large and easy to use. If your bathroom door tends to lock accidentally, be sure to replace it. And don’t forget to replace the faucets in the shower or the tub if they stick or are difficult to turn.

8. Purchase a Transfer Chair

A transfer chair is a simple addition to the bathroom that makes it easier to get in and out of a tub or shower without slipping or falling. With the chair placed outside the tub or shower, an older adult can sit on the chair, lift their legs, and scoot over and into the bathing area.

9. Install Grab Bars

Interior of restroom for elderly senior people
Photo: navintar / Adobe Stock

Modern grab bar options blend in seamlessly with your existing shower fixtures, so you can add extra support without compromising on style. Install grab bars in the shower and around the toilet. Make sure that wall bars are parallel to the ground and that two grab bars are in the shower—one on the back wall and one on the wall with the controls. 

“It’s critical that grab bars are well anchored,” says Bob Tschudi, a Raleigh, NC-based general contractor. “Ideally, you want the bars attached to the wall studs, but if that’s not possible, use toggle bolts.”

10. Install Thermostatic Valves

Thermostatic valves prevent water from reaching scalding temperatures. Some showers already have these installed. If yours doesn’t, consider adding one to reduce the risk of burns—a good safety feature for people of any age. Thermostatic valves can also be used on sinks to make sure anyone washing their hands or brushing their teeth isn’t surprised by hot water.

11. Widen the Doorway

Doors should be 32 to 36 inches wide to accommodate a wheelchair, scooter, or walker. Wheelchairs need up to 60 inches of space to turn. However, adding this much space isn’t always possible in a residential bathroom without a full remodel.

General contractor Bob Tschudi says, “whenever we add or widen a doorway, we first check to see if that opening is part of a structural wall. To be sure, consult an architect or a structural engineer.”

12. Remove Thresholds

Remove the shower ledge that requires someone to step over and in with a walk-in design. If the person you’re making updates for prefers taking baths, then consider a walk-in tub. Both options are big jobs that could require moving plumbing, so you might want to leave it to a bathroom design professional. The bonus is that the shower upgrade gives your home a luxurious spa-like feel.

13. Raise or Replace the Sink

If your bathroom needs to accommodate someone who uses a wheelchair, raise the sink to a height of 30 to 34 inches. There needs to be enough space below the sink for the wheelchair, so switching to a wall-mounted sink will provide that open space. Otherwise, raising the sink to a height of 40 inches will help someone who has trouble bending over.

Make sure to adjust the mirror height to accommodate everyone in the household, too.

14. Make Glass Safe

In some bathrooms, especially in older houses, regular glass window panes could break into large shards when put under added pressure (such as a hand placed on it for support and balance). Check with a general contractor to determine which windows need to be replaced with safety or tempered glass or an approved clear material.

15. Elevate the Toilet Height 

Elevating a toilet five to seven inches allows older adults to stand up more easily. A plumber in your area can replace the existing toilet with one that has a taller profile. Adjustable toilet seats that you can install on your own are another option that increases toilet height by three to six inches. Even a molded plastic seat will add a couple of inches.

The ability to use the restroom solo is important for everyone’s independence, but home safety doesn’t end there. To keep your loved ones safe, consider a whole-home aging-in-place inspection.

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