Dear Savvy Senior: Because of my mobility problems, I’m thinking about getting a walk-in bathtub that’s easy to get into and out of, but could use some help selecting one. What can you tell me about walk-in tubs, and can you recommend some good companies that make and install them? — Bubble Bath Betty
Dear Betty: Walk-in tubs are a good option for mobility-challenged seniors because they’re much easier to get into and out of than a standard tub and will help prevent slips, trips and falls, too. Here’s what you should know.
Walk-in bathtubs are uniquely designed tubs that have a watertight, hinged door built into the side of the tub that provides a much lower threshold to step over (usually 2-1/2 to 7 inches) versus a standard tub that’s around 15 inches.
In addition to the low threshold, most walk-in tubs also have a built-in seat, grab bars, anti-slip floors, anti-scald valves and a hand-held shower head. And many higher-end models offer therapeutic spa- like features that are great for seniors with arthritis and other ailments.
The kind of tub you choose will depend on your needs, preferences and budget, and the size and layout of your bathroom. The cost of a walk-in tub today with professional installation ranges anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000. Here are some other things you’ll need to consider, to help you make a good choice.
Tub size: Walk-in bathtubs vary in size. Most models have high walls between 3 and 4 feet high and are between 28 and 32 inches wide but will fit into the same 60-inch-long space as your standard tub without having to reconfigure the room. There are also bariatric walk-in tubs that have wider door openings and larger seats to accommodate people over 300 pounds.
Wheelchair-accessible: Most walk-in tubs have an inward-opening door, but if you use a wheelchair, an outward-opening door may be a better option because they’re easier to access.
Tub options: The most basic and least expensive type of walk-in tub you can get is a simple soaker tub. But depending on your preferences, you have many other options like an aerotherapy (air jets) tub, hydrotherapy (whirlpool water jets) tub, aromatherapy tub that mixes fragrant essential oils with the water, or a combination tub that has multiple features. Also, look for tubs that have an in-line heating system to keep your bathwater warm while you soak.
Fast fill and drain: One drawback to using a walk-in bathtub is that the bather must sit in the tub as it fills and drains, which can make for a chilly experience. To help with this, consider a tub that has fast-filling faucets and pump-assisted drainage systems, which significantly speed up the process. But these options might require some plumbing modifications to your bathroom.
Easy cleaning: Keeping the tub clean should be a priority, especially if you get a therapy tub, because of the bacteria that can grow in it. So, look for tubs with self-cleaning systems.
Warranty: The best walk-in bathtubs on the market today are made in the U.S. Also, make sure the company you choose has a lifetime “leak-proof” door seal warranty and lengthy warranties on both the tub and the operating system.
Where to shop: While there are many companies that make, sell and install walk-in bathtubs, some of the best in the industry are American Standard (AmericanStandard-us.com), Safe Step (SafeStepTub.com) and Kohler (KohlerWalkinBath.com). Most companies offer financing with monthly payment plans.
Unfortunately, original Medicare does not cover walk-in bathtubs, nor do Medicare supplemental (Medigap) policies, but some Medicare Advantage plans might help pay. There are also many states that offer Medicaid waivers that will help pay for the purchase and installation of a walk-in tub to those who qualify, and the VA offers some programs that provide financial aid, too.
To get started, contact a few companies that will send a local dealer to your home to assess your bathroom and give you product options and estimates for free.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.