Bathroom Safety for the Elderly

The bathroom is one of the most dangerous rooms in the house for the elderly and for those with ambulatory impairments. In fact, the bathroom is the most common setting for nonfatal injuries involving slips, sprains, fractures and concussions.

While there is already a lot of information on ways that families can modify a bathroom for safety, I don’t think there is enough said about the importance of making bathroom modifications based on the individual’s needs, and the importance of teaching safe bathroom routines.

When we perform a home safety assessment, we often see that families, with the best of intentions, have installed grab bars and adaptive equipment to make the bathroom more accessible for their loved ones. Within a short time, the grab bars are used as towel racks, and adaptive equipment is set aside or used as extra counter space holding bathroom accessories or even used to hold a potted plant! In other words, by putting the equipment ‘out of the way‘, it often ends up not getting used for its intended purpose.

bathroom safety for the elderly

We have also seen many patients who are using the equipment incorrectly. One example is with a client of mine who routinely used his grab bar to hold his washcloth and toiletries. When he needed to use the grab bar for support, he would grab the washcloth, or knock a toiletry off the rack and risk an injury bending over to pick it up. He would often grab the bar from the underside, rather than from the top, which increased his chances of losing his grip, and slipping.

In other instances, grab bars were installed based on the layout of the bathroom, but without consideration of the person using them. I had another client who had grab bars installed on the wall to the right of the toilet because there was no other wall, the patient had suffered a stroke and did not have sufficient mobility in the right side of her body to use the bar.

The height of grab bars is frequently a misfit for many of my clients; the bar is either too high or too low to provide proper leverage for standing and sitting, or, it is at the wrong angle.

Always place adaptive equipment in the most beneficial spots for the user. I find when my patients are part of the installation measurements, their “buy in” for using the equipment is greater.

And yes, I have had more that one elderly patient state that “their children installed the adaptive equipment, however, they didn’t need it.” Getting the patient to use the equipment on a regular basis so that it becomes a familiar part of the daily routine, is a big part of the safety equation. This is where a physical or occupational therapist can be beneficial. Teaching bathroom safety routines is an important part of keeping an elderly person safe in their home environment. Many elderly people are unaware of the extent that they need a little extra help. Creating new bathroom routines can be difficult, but it is an important step for safety.

I recommend having a home safety inspection prior to installing any equipment, and it is important that the person conducting the inspection understand the physical limitations of the person who will use the equipment.

Many bathroom modifications can be done simply and affordably by the homeowner with a basic set of handyman skills. I also recommend that any work performed by a contractor, be done by one who specializes in modifications for the elderly or disabled.

Below, is a check-list of bathroom safety modifications to provide safe, easy access to toilet, sink and tub/shower.

  • Be sure there are slip-resistant surfaces both inside and outside the bathtub or shower, such as rubber-backed mats or decals.

Grab Bars:

  • DO NOT USE towel bars as a substitute for a grab bar. Use only one-piece grab bars, there are many decorative styles available, but a one piece bar is stable unlike a towel bar.
  • Be sure grab bars are safely installed  –  securely screwed into a solid surface, or stud.
  • Never drill into drywall or hollow surfaces. There are also non-drill grab bars that must be very carefully installed, according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Recommended placement: 

  • Outside the shower/bathtub
  • Inside the shower/bathtub
  • Near toilet for raising/lowering

Cost range for professional installation: $95-$170 per bar.

If you would like more suggestions for keeping the bathroom safe, We think these resource links are quite good:

Bathroom Safety Modifications

How to make the bathroom safer for your elderly parent:  Visiting Nurses of New York



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