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Modifying the Bathroom for Your Loved One with Limited Mobility

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For many older adults, being able to age in place is a crucial part of their quality of life. However, being able to age in place requires a home that’s accessible, no matter what mobility issues or other challenges of aging may be at play. 

Several of our day-to-day activities are done in the bathroom such as using the toilet, bathing, as well as most of our hygiene tasks. However, according to studies completed by the CDC and ADA, the bathroom is the most dangerous room in the home. With bathrooms often being the smallest room in the home, people with limited mobility are likely to struggle to utilize the bathroom as perhaps they once were able to. Older adults may struggle with ambulation or balance. They may use walkers or wheelchairs which can be difficult to utilize within a bathroom.

Ensuring that your loved one has access to and efficiently utilizes the bathroom in a safe way is key to successfully aging in place. 

Fortunately, there are safety features that can be implemented and adaptations that can be made to help improve safety and efficiency and make it an accessible bathroom. Some are DIY, quick fixes, while others are larger bathroom modifications. If your loved one’s goal is to age in place, these adjustments may be necessary. 


How To Make Sure Your Loved One’s Bathroom Is Safe To Use  

The first step in making sure your loved one’s bathroom is accessible is looking at its location. If your loved one’s only full bathroom is located up a flight of stairs, it may not be possible for your loved one to access it if their mobility impacts their ability to use stairs. 

In some cases, you may be able to install a stairlift to allow your loved one to access their second-floor bathroom. It’s also important to ensure that the bathroom is large enough to be wheelchair accessible, or if they need someone to assist them in the bathroom. 

The ADA states that the width of the door frame, especially the bathroom door, should be at least 32 inches to accommodate a wheelchair. Make sure the doorknob can be used with one hand and does not take significant strength to open.

If your loved one’s bathroom needs a complete bathroom renovation, such as expanding it or moving it downstairs, consider looking into home modification loans. Some states offer loans and grants to assist a homeowner in making home modifications in the event of a disability.  Often these are available for individuals who may be eligible for Medicaid. When available, these can assist with the financial impact of a bathroom remodel. To learn more about these options, connect with your local Area Agency on Aging.

Let’s review how different amenities within a bathroom can be modified for safety purposes. 


The Sink

When looking at the sink, make sure that the faucet knobs or levers are easy to use, with one hand. 

You may want to consider an automatic faucet for your loved one. An automatic faucet doesn’t depend on your loved one being able to turn the knobs, and will also make sure that the sink is turned off in case they forget to do so. 

Try removing clutter that may surround the bathroom sink and on the countertops near the sink. Take away any products that may no longer be in use. You don’t want things to fall and have your loved one fall trying to pick them up. Make sure that there is easy access to products that your loved one frequently uses.

If your loved one uses a wheelchair or they struggle to stand for a long time, you may want to remove any cabinets that might be below the sink in order to make room for a chair or wheelchair. Next to the sink is also a great place to install grab bars.


The Bathing Area

Consider a walk-in shower with a shower chair on the inside - ideally have the shower be flush with the floor. Even a small lip or curb can be hazardous. 

If a walk-in shower is not possible, get a shower chair that allows your loved one to sit on the outside of the tub, and slide themselves into the tub. 

Shower seats are generally considered medical equipment and with a prescription from a doctor, or a referral from a therapist, the equipment likely can be covered by Medicare

Additionally, a handheld shower head can come in handy if someone is assisting your loved one with their shower. Together, these assistive devices create an accessible shower.

Wet floors and soap can increase the chance of falls even for someone who hasn’t had trouble navigating a tall tub in the past. Make sure that floor mats are firmly on the floor and don’t increase the chance of slipping or tripping on the edge. 

Place handrails on the inside and outside of the shower to assist with entering and exiting the bath.


The Toilet

Make sure that the toilet is at an appropriate height. 

To avoid installing a new toilet of a different height, consider a commode without the basin sitting over the toilet. This will raise the toilet seat and also offer arms to allow your loved one to stand up with ease. Again, this raised toilet seat is generally a type of medical equipment. If the arms are not enough, consider installing additional grab bars

Make sure that the toilet paper and other hygiene products are located in a place that doesn’t require your loved one to do too much twisting, reaching, or bending. 


Additional Adaptations

In addition to adapting the fixtures in the bathroom, consider the light fixtures of the bathroom and the hallways leading to the bathroom. Older adults are often impacted by vision changes which can increase the risk of falls. 

Place motion-detecting lights within the bathroom and on the way to the bathroom. Some lights may go on the wall, but you can also get small strips of lights to place along the floor. This will help in the event your loved one has to get up quickly at night. If they are a wheelchair user, make sure light switches are at an appropriate height.

Additionally, consider assistive technology such as an emergency button. If they don’t want to wear the device at night, place a phone in the bathroom so that they can contact emergency services or a family member in the event of an emergency.


Interested In Safe-Proofing Your Loved One’s Bathroom?

If you’re unsure if the bathroom is safe and accessible for the older adult in your life, consider working with a physical therapist or occupational therapist. These professionals can provide guidance and assistance in increasing bathroom accessibility, tailored to the specific mobility challenges of your loved one.

The bathroom can be a frequent obstacle when it comes to successfully aging in place, but with adaptations, an older adult with limited mobility can safely navigate the bathroom within the home. 

Increasing bathroom accessibility can allow your loved ones to safely manage their personal care at home. Ultimately, modifying a  bathroom to be safe-proof can allow them to be more independent, maintain their dignity and greatly improve their overall quality of life.

Laurel McLaughlin

Laurel McLaughlin has over a decade worth of experience in various sectors of the elder care field- home care, senior living, and non-profits. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is a certified dementia practitioner.

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