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How to modify bathrooms to keep mom and dad safe

Dear Savvy Senior,

What tips can you recommend for making a bathroom senior- friendly? My 78-year-old mother has mobility problems and fell getting out of the bathtub last month. I’d like to modify her bathroom with some safety features that can help keep her safe. — Concerned Daughter

Dear Concerned,

Great question! Because more accidents and injuries happen in the bathroom than any other room in the house, this is a very important room to modify, especially for seniors with mobility or balance problems.

Depending on your mom’s needs and budget, here are some simple tips and product recommendations that can make her bathroom safer and easier to use.

Floor: To avoid slipping, a simple fix is to get nonskid bath rugs for the floors. Or, if you want to put in a new floor, get slip-resistant tiles, rubber or vinyl flooring, or install wall-to-wall carpeting.

Lights: Good lighting is also very important, so install the highest-wattage bulbs allowed for your mom’s bathroom fixtures and get a plug-in nightlight that automatically turns on when the room gets dark.

Bathtub/shower: To make bathing safer, purchase a rubber suction-grip mat or put down adhesive nonskid tape on the tub/shower floor. And have a carpenter install grab bars in and around the tub/shower for support.

If your mom uses a shower curtain, install a screw- or bolt-mounted curtain rod, versus a tension-mounted rod, so that if she loses her balance and grabs the shower curtain, the rod won’t spring loose.

For easier access and safer bathing, consider getting your mom a shower or bathtub chair so she can bathe from a seated position. In addition, you should also have a hand-held, adjustable-height shower head installed that makes chair bathing easier.

If your mom has the budget for it, another good option is to install a curbless shower or walk-in-bathtub. Curbless showers have no threshold to step over and come with a built-in seat, grab bars, slip-resistant floors and an adjustable hand-held shower head. Walk-in tubs, meanwhile, have a door in front that provides a much lower threshold to step over than a standard tub. They also have a built-in seat, handrails and a slip-resistant bottom, and some have therapeutic features like whirlpool water jets and/or bubble massage air jets.

Curbless showers and walk-in-tubs run anywhere between $2,500 and $10,000 installed.

Toilet: Most standard toilets are around 15 inches high and can be an issue for taller seniors with arthritis, back, hip or knee problems. If your mom has trouble getting on or off the toilet, a simple solution is to purchase a raised toilet seat that clamps to the toilet bowl and/or purchase toilet safety rails that sit on each side of the seat for support. Or, you can install a new ADA-compliant “comfort height” toilet that is 16 to 19 inches high.

Faucets: If your mom has twist handles on the sink, bathtub or shower faucets, consider replacing them with lever handle faucets or with a touch, motion or digital smart faucet. They’re easier to operate, especially if she has hand arthritis or gripping problems. Also note that it takes only 130-degree water to scald someone, so turn down her hot water heater to 120 degrees.

Doorway: If your mom needs a wider bathroom entrance to accommodate a walker or wheelchair, an inexpensive solution is to install some swing-clear offset hinges on the door, which will expand the doorway an additional 2 inches.

Emergency assistance: As a safety precaution, you should also consider purchasing a voice-enabled medical alert system like Get Safe (GetSafe.com) for her bathroom. This device would let her call for help by simple voice command or by pushing a button or pulling a cord.

You can find all of these suggested products at medical supply stores, pharmacies, big-box stores, home improvement stores, hardware and plumbing supply stores as well as online.


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.


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