Renovating your bath? Consider these things if you’re 55-plus
Proper planning prevents problems later
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Let’s face it, no one wants to think about growing old. But meeting this reality head-on has its advantages, especially when it comes to living in your own home independently for as long as possible. Don’t wait to make designs or it will be too late.
Scott Fulton, chairman of the board of directors of the National Aging in Place Council whose company, Home Ideations, is based in Wilmington, Delaware, says, “The benefit of making decisions early is that you get the best options. Ask yourself, ‘How can I successfully live in my home for as many years as I choose?’”
Architect Josh Safdie, principal of KMA, a Newton, Massachusetts, firm specializing in universal design and accessibility planning, concurs. “If you’re building a home in your 50s and want to stay there until your 80s, you need to account for physical and cognitive changes that are inevitably going to happen.”
Safdie’s and KMA’s goal is to ensure that best practices in aging-in-place principles are incorporated into project designs.
As easy as it may be to move your master bedroom from upstairs to the first floor—thus avoiding walking up and down stairs—there are other aspects of your living space that need to be addressed in order to prepare for the reduced mobility that often comes with age. The bathroom is a good place to start.
Typically, bathrooms are small but a new bathroom or even a remodeled one demands more decisions per square foot than any other room in your home—under normal circumstances.
Take aging in place into account and the decisions get a little more complicated. The good news is that these days there are plenty of products designed specifically for aging in place, and they are readily available.
But before even considering outfitting your bathroom, let’s take a broader look at being proactive and planning ahead to avoid risk.
Increase your space
Just as with the rest of your house, the circulation or flow in your bathroom is important. You don’t want to be knocking into things.
Safdie says that a bathroom should be 8 feet by 10 feet at a minimum, and preferably larger. Why? On top of a shower, sink and toilet—all of which fit snugly into a room half that size—you need to look ahead to a time when you may not only use a personal mobility device (walker, cane, wheelchair, etc.) but also may require personal care assistance from a family member or home health aide. So, there needs to be room for both of you to move around.
“Thinking about showers, in particular, my advice is to design for two people,” says Fulton. “As soon as you design it for two people, you automatically acquire space that you may not need now but will later on when bathing assistance is called for.”
Anticipating more room for storage in a bathroom is also critical. As you get older, it’s only natural that you acquire more items, such as medications, that are typically stored in the bathroom. And if you can no longer stand at the sink and need a seat or a wheelchair, storage space below the sink, such as a vanity, disappears.
Create purposeful infrastructure
When you have the luxury of starting from scratch, as opposed to retrofitting an existing bathroom, you reap huge benefits down the road, notably money. Plus, it will help keep your bathroom from looking institutional with hastily added accessibility solutions when your needs are immediate.
Planning for the future includes something as simple and inexpensive as installing plywood blocking behind the walls, from 18 inches above the floor to 5 feet above the floor. This way, notes Safdie, “No matter where you want to put a grab bar, you can.” Compare this to randomly drilling holes in tile hoping to find a stud.
Seriously consider installing a curbless shower, which is aesthetically appealing to people at any age and enormously practical as one grows older and less steady on their feet. “I tell people they can add glass or a swing-around curtain later [if modesty is a concern],” says Fulton.
On the subject of showers, a hand-held shower head is often easier to use for someone with limited mobility than a fixed shower head. The best solution is to incorporate both.
Fulton points out, “Having a hose gives you flexibility, no matter how old you are,” adding that it’s a good way to wash a dog in a shower, too.
“Often, we make the entire room a wet room,” shares Safdie, explaining that waterproofing is installed underneath the entire floor so it doesn’t matter where the shower is located.
As for lighting, it’s a good idea to think in terms of zones, typically three—overhead, at the vanity, and in the shower—and all LED. And there are other electrical considerations to plan ahead for as well.
Safdie says, “I always recommend separate switches for the fan and the light. Have directed light, which is better for older eyes.”
If there’s room in your budget, says Fulton, consider creating a specific area where appliances can be plugged in, similar to charging stations in beauty salons.
Don’t forget comfort
No one likes to step out of a shower into a chilly bathroom, and sensitivity to cold increases with age.
A blower heater or infrared heater just outside the shower will take the chill off for the time it takes to dry off and get dressed, notes Safdie, who also recommends night light footlights for easier navigation from the bedroom to the bathroom.
Style can accommodate functionality
If you’re wondering if a bathroom designed for aging in place can be safe and pretty, the answer is a resounding yes.
Sacramento-based Kerrie Kelly, a member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and a Certified Aging in Place Specialist, is an expert when it comes to designing bathrooms that are both functional and fashionable.
For example, what to do about those institutional-looking grab bars? “They can be installed in finishes that match the rest of your hardware and you will love the sleek aesthetic,” she says.
Tile nowadays comes in so many different shapes, sizes, textures and colors that choosing one is like being a kid in a candy store. So, even though you’d be wise to select ceramic, porcelain or stone tile that is textured in a way to deter a slip or fall, your choices are wide-ranging.
Kelly has another tip: “In showers, we like to cut the tiles in a two-by-two size so that you have a lot of grout in between to prevent slipping.”
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