From the Experts

Better Baths, Beautifully

Michael J. Berens, Aging & Design Author

By Michael J. Berens
Freelance researcher, writer and editor with extensive experience in the converging fields of aging and design

Bathrooms serve many functions in a home.  They are a place to clean and refresh ourselves, to compose ourselves before facing the world, or to escape from the world altogether for a few minutes of peace and relaxation.  One thing a bathroom should never be, however, is a hazard.  Whether your preference is for a utilitarian, easy maintenance bathroom or a luxurious, spa-like retreat, with a few minor changes you can ensure that your bathroom is as safe as it is functional and beautiful.

Although it may look harmless enough, the bathroom is one of the most hazardous areas in the home.  You have wet, slippery hard surfaces, sharp angles on countertops and cabinets, metal fixtures, bulky items like toilets and tubs, hot water, glass – well, you get the idea.  A bathroom can be an accident waiting to happen.  Of primary concern is the risk of a fall.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the leading cause of injury deaths among older adults. They are also the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma. Almost without exception, falls can be linked to some deficiency in the immediate environment, according to the National Safety Council, such as a slippery floor or bath mat, a quick change in elevation (for example, stepping from the floor over the side of a bathtub or vice versa), or inadequate levels of lighting.

At a very basic level, you can help prevent bathroom accidents with a few, low-cost changes:

  • Most bathrooms have low levels of lighting.  If that’s true of yours, increase the ambient light level by adding a ceiling light and, if needed, a light over the tub or shower.  You may also want to increase the light around the mirror or sink. Use rocker-style switches with a dimmer slider to control the level of lighting needed at different times of the day. Switches should have sensors and/or be illuminated so they are easy to locate and turn on in the dark.
  • Replace any old outlets with GFCI outlets to protect against accidental electric shock. All outlets should be at least 18 inches off the floor.
  • Install anti-scald devices for faucets for the sink and shower/bath to prevent accidents from excessively hot water.
  • Use only tub or shower seats designed for that purpose.  Make sure they rest securely on the floor of the shower or tub bottom and that you can sit comfortably while resting your feet on the tub bottom or shower floor.
  • Install safety bars in the shower/tub area and next to the toilet.  (A towel bar, shower door or soap rack will not sustain your weight in the event you should slip or start to fall, and could become an additional hazard.)
  • Remove all rugs and make sure the bathmat is non-skid.  (Do not walk on the floor with wet feet.)
  • Replace any cabinet knobs with D-shaped pull handles.
  • If space allows, add a chair or stool for sitting while changing, applying makeup, etc. 

If you can afford to do a bit more, then consider the following additional modifications:

  • Replace your old floor with a non-slip floor designed for bathrooms.
  • Replace your glass shower door with a shower curtain.
  • Replace any counter tops or cabinets that have sharp edges or corners with rounded or beveled ones.
  • Replace grip-handled faucets with paddle-handled or sensor-activated faucets.
  • If the walls and/or tiles in your bathroom are dark, change them to a brighter color and incorporate contrasting colors around borders and edges to highlight them.
  • Consider replacing a fixed shower head with a handheld model for greater control and flexibility. 

Should you have mobility problems and/or are contemplating a bathroom remodel, then consider the following as well:

  • Replace the tub and/or shower with a step-less, walk-in shower that includes an installed seating area, temperature-controlled valves, safety bars, a handheld shower, slip-proof floor, overhead light and shower curtain.
  • Ensure the room is an adequate size for an assistive device, with a 36” wide door (preferably a pocket-style door) and can accommodate a 60-inch turning radius.
  • Center the toilet 18 inches from any wall, shower or cabinet, and make sure the height is 17 to 19 inches from the floor.  Install safety bars next to the toilet for additional support when standing or sitting.
  • The vanity or sink area should include a knees-free opening to allow someone seated easy access to the faucet, mirror and items on the counter.
  • Make sure flooring, counters and other surfaces are non-porous to help prevent the spread of germs. 

You don’t have to sacrifice beauty for safety.  Many manufacturers now offer attractive, affordable products with the safety features described above.  Even safety bars have become a fashion item.  Check out the GreatGrabz line, for example, or those offered by Moen. A local bath or tile store can show you a wide range of suitable flooring, counter and tile options, many of which are easy to maintain. Fixtures and lighting options come in a wide variety of styles and price ranges, as well.  Home improvement stores usually carry several affordable lines, while a kitchen and bath or lighting shop can help you find exactly what you’re looking for.

If you have particular needs because of health or mobility issues, consult with a kitchen and bath specialist or interior designer to determine the changes and solutions that will best accommodate your needs, home and budget.  For a more information on bath safety, visit the National Institutes of Health website or see the detailed checklist created by AARP.