How to Build an Accessible Bathroom
As we age, many of us will find ourselves in need of improved bathroom accessibility. Accessible bathrooms can dramatically enhance the quality of life of homeowners and their loved ones living with mobility restrictions due to aging, disability, or physical injury. Let’s face it: traditional bathroom fixtures are typically not designed to accommodate these specific, but crucial needs.
Fortunately, there are many innovative solutions that allow residents to customize their bath fixtures so they’re more supportive of various mobility limitations. If you’d like to make your bathroom a more accessible place, start by asking yourself these questions to gain perspective on where best to focus your time and money:
- Which bathroom activities need to be augmented for improved accessibility and safety?
- Does my household generally prefer bathing or showering?
- Do I need stabilizing features, like grab bars or built-in seating, and if so, where should they be positioned to maximize convenience and safety?
- Do one or more cohabitants need quick, easy access to vital medical supplies or equipment?
- Do I need to plan further accessibility modifications to address future changes to the physical condition or capacity of those I live with?
The answers to these questions will allow you to proceed to the planning phase with a more thorough idea of your remodel’s scope and cost, but your homework doesn’t stop there. Next, it’s time to examine the individual components of your bathroom to determine if they need to be upgraded or replaced.
The Bath or Shower
Although a rolling shower seat may be helpful for some, this solution likely won’t suffice for a majority of those who use wheelchairs or walkers. A curbless or zero-barrier shower is more ideal; with this design, the threshold of the shower base remains level with the floor and slopes towards the drain. In addition, an extra-wide opening allows ample room for maneuvering within your shower.
For those who prefer a bath to a shower, walk-in tubs can provide the ideal solution. Walk-in tubs and roll-in showers should always include:
- Non-slip flooring to minimize slip and fall risks
- Grab bars to enhance stability for sitting and standing users
- Conveniently positioned caddies or shower niches that make it easy to access soap, washcloths, and other bathing products
- A towel hook positioned closely enough that a user can dry off before exiting the tub or shower to prevent unnecessary drips and leaks
- Overhead lighting and convenient cleaning accessories, like a showerhead with a long hose, to help with cleaning hard-to-reach areas
The Sink and Vanity
The sink should be wall-mounted with no cabinet underneath in order to provide open knee space for wheelchair users. Single-handle faucets also provide an added degree of operational convenience, but you could also install a motion sensor that will turn your water on and off automatically. Choose a sturdy, low vanity that can be used as a bracing surface for maneuvering or balancing. Extra-long or adjustable mirrors can be installed at a lower height, as should drawers and open shelving units that stage various toiletries, medications, and cleaning supplies.
Higher toilet seats are easiest for wheelchair users to transfer to and from, but we recommend opting for a toilet wall-mounted at a custom height. A bidet can provide a convenient, albeit costly, alternative, if you’re looking to create a truly hands-free routine. For maximum safety, grab bars should be placed at strategic points on the toilet’s surrounding walls.
Don’t overlook lighting as a vital safety-enhancing feature. Although natural light is preferred, depending on the location and layout of your space, it may not be sufficient. Coverage should be even and minimize shadows as much as possible. We recommend installing large, easily operable light switches low on the wall, or motion detectors for an automated lighting scheme.
What the Pros Know
Keep the following principles in mind as you plan your bathroom modification project:
Any bathroom remodeling project, particularly one undertaken to improve accessibility, is going to be quite a major undertaking. If your bathroom’s layout is poorly designed to begin with, consider reorganizing the floor plan by removing partitions and/or reconfiguring plumbing and electrical components.
Each fixture should have ample, useable space around it (ideally, at least 30 x 48 inches of free space) to ensure comfortable turning and clearance for a wheelchair. You should also account for whether you or a loved one needs the help of a personal care attendant.
Come on in
Doorways need to be at least 34 inches wide to accommodate wheelchair access. Pocket doors are a smart option for maximizing usable space, as are doors that swing outward, instead of into the room. Your doors can also be outfitted with lever-style handles to promote easier operation.
There are many lifts on the market today that can assist with transfers in the bathroom, including hydraulic chair lifts, sling-type lifts, rolling transfer benches, and more.
As with any bathroom, electrical outlets should be grounded, and the maximum hot water temperature should be lowered to prevent scalding or burns. Also, be wary of bath mats, as these can bunch easily and suddenly create a tripping hazard.
Although by no means exhaustive, we hope that these bathroom remodeling ideas for improving your space’s accessibility will spark inspiration and help you plan home modifications that will grant you and your loved ones bathing safety and independence for years to come.
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