7 Key Ideas of Aging in Place Bathroom Design

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Replacing a tub with a barrier-free shower is a popular aging in place bathroom design idea.

Remodeling a bathroom to fit your needs as you age is integral to staying safe and comfortable in your home. After all, we spend a good bit of every day in the bathroom, right?

But homeowners often don't know where to start when designing or redesigning for aging-in-place. If you're like most people, you're picturing a hospital-like space.

So the question is—how do you create a bathroom that looks stylish and also provides accessibility?

Many people choose to "age in place" rather than move into retirement facilities—in fact, according to AARP, more than 75% of Americans over the age of 50 plan to continue living at home as they grow older. But their home environment may not sustain their changing needs, and bathrooms can be particularly challenging.

Ensuring your bathroom is updated correctly means considering safety features and practical, accessible design elements. Of course, there are plenty of ways to infuse your personality into the remodel - maybe a few spa-like touches too?

In this article, we'll discuss some essential tips for remodeling your aging-in-place bathroom so that it's both functionally sound and aesthetically pleasing.

Accessible Bathroom Design Inspiration

What if there was a design that works for all situations you might encounter? Sound too good to be true? Well, it's not...

Universal design is at the heart of age in place design ideas. I know what you're thinking. Why isn't it used for all construction and remodeling....well, that's an excellent question (and a discussion for another day).

At its core, universal design focuses on creating a space that is accessible and usable by people of all ages, sizes, and abilities.

The real beauty of universal design is that it works well for everyone. So a bathroom designed for aging in place will be just as useful and comfortable for guests and grandkids.

Sounds great, right? It is!

As you'll see, universal design principles are perfect for aging in place bathroom design.

First Floor Accessible Bathroom Location

Before considering all the design features included in a bathroom remodel for aging in place, let's look at a critical factor, bathroom location.

If possible, there should be at least one full bathroom, usually the master bathroom, located on the first floor. This will make it easier for those with mobility issues or limited strength to access the restroom without navigating stairs.

A first floor accessible bathroom is a key feature of an aging in place home design.

Even if going up and down stairs isn't difficult right now, chances are good that it will become challenging at some point, either temporarily or permanently.

Having a first-floor bathroom space close to frequently used rooms, such as the bedroom, is ideal. A convenient location will also help increase safety, especially when using the toilet at night.

Wider Doorway Access 

This is something most people overlook.

We're not talking airplane bathroom door width, but bathroom doors tend to be narrow, especially in powder rooms, which creates significant accessibility issues.

Many bathroom doorways are not wide enough for wheelchairs, walkers, and other assistive devices to pass through easily. Having to transfer out of a wheelchair or turn a walker sideways to fit through the bathroom door is less than ideal for both safety and convenience.

So wider doorways are another essential element of an aging-in-place bathroom. A wider door also makes it easier for caregivers to assist if needed.

When constructing or remodeling your bathroom, it's best to make doorway openings wider than standard size so that you don't have to enlarge the door frame later and incur additional expenses. Ensure that all bathroom doorways are no less than 32 inches wide and ideally 36 inches for greater ease of access.

Here are some recommendations and remodeling ideas for widening a doorway for wheelchair accessibility.

Adequate Floor Space for Bathroom Accessibility

Once inside the bathroom, there must be enough floor space to provide adequate clearance of fixtures and to move around comfortably. This requires a floor plan with at least 5 square feet of open space, enough for a standard-size wheelchair to turn around.

Adequate floor space is necessary for an accessible bathroom design.

For an aging in place bathroom, more space is better for accessibility, comfort, and convenience. The bathroom layout may need to be changed to accomplish enough open space for accessibility. Sometimes an adjacent room or closet can be utilized for additional bathroom space. Wet room design is a great way to make the most of a small bathroom space.

Barrier-Free Curbless Shower

A curbless shower is an essential feature of aging in place bathroom design. This type of walk-in shower eliminates the need to step up into the shower, making it easier to access and helping reduce fall risk. Curbless showers are also referred to by different names, as listed below.

A low or no threshold allows a wheeled shower chair or wheelchair access and the option to enter the shower using a walker or other mobility device. For these reasons, a curbless shower is also called a roll-in shower. This shower type may also be referred to as zero threshold.

A curbless, barrier-free shower can improve space utilization in the bathroom layout. The shower shares some space with other room functions, such as the area around the toilet. This is frequently seen in wetroom bathroom design and helps to maximize space in a smaller bathroom.

A barrier-free, curbless shower design is a key aging in place bathroom feature for older adults.

The shower floor seamlessly flows into the rest of the bathroom floor, although the shower floor slopes towards a drain to keep water from leaving the shower area. A curbless shower is sometimes designed with a shower curtain, glass screen, or full or partial shower walls to help contain water and avoid slippery floors.

Frequently, a permanent built-in bench or portable shower seat is installed to provide the ability to sit while bathing.

A walk-in tub is an alternative for those who wish to have an accessible bathtub. But, they are not zero threshold or curbless and have numerous disadvantages compared to a step-free shower design.

Taller Toilet Height

How important is toilet height? Well, you'd be surprised.

Toilet height and design are more impactful than most people realize. The proper toilet promotes independence, health, and safety and allows everyday ease of use. That's why higher toilets are essential bathroom fixtures and a critical feature of aging in place bathroom design.

Toilet seats higher than standard height make it easier for those with limited mobility and decreased strength to sit down and stand up. Generally, the ideal toilet height is 17-19 inches, about 2-4 inches higher than a standard toilet and closer to the height of a chair. A tall toilet can also help reduce the risk of falls as they provide more stability when sitting or standing.

If you're thinking, is a higher toilet really better for shorter people? The answer....well, maybe. There are a bunch of things to consider. Here's some great (bathroom) reading about choosing the proper height toilet for seniors and the best toilet shape.

Accessible Vanity Sink

Sink cabinet height and configuration is another often overlooked aspect of age in place bathroom design. A vanity that's too short or too tall is inconvenient and uncomfortable, but an inaccessible sink is unacceptable.

For people needing to sit in a wheelchair or standard chair at the bathroom sink, there must be enough legroom without their legs bumping into cabinetry or pipes underneath the sink. A vanity and sink that somebody can use, either sitting or standing, is essential.

A wheelchair accessible vanity sink helps to create a senior-friendly bathroom.

Some examples of wheelchair accessible vanities are height-adjustable, pedestal, and wall-mounted sinks. Read more about accessible sinks here. 

Senior Bathroom Safety Features

Bathrooms are dangerous for everyone but are especially hazardous for aging adults. The combination of many hard surfaces, water, and soap contributes to fall risk. Most falls occur in or near the shower area and at the toilet.

Luckily, there are hundreds of ways to make bathrooms as safe as possible. New products hit the market every day. Since the bathroom is the most dangerous room in the house for people of all ages, you can't be too careful.

Start with these three options - grab bars, non-slip flooring, and good lighting - and you'll be well on your way to a safer bathroom for everyone, including seniors.

Grab Bars

Grab bars aren't just for aging adults. That's right, grab bars, also known as safety rails, safety handles, and safety bars, are essential features to maximize bathroom safety for everyone. But they are an absolute necessity in aging in place bathrooms.

Safety grab bars provide support and stability anywhere in the bathroom but are used frequently in and near the shower and toilet area. For them to do their job, safety bars must be installed properly to support body weight without detaching.

Safety grab bars come in various types, sizes, and finishes. If chosen correctly, grab bars and rails can blend into the design, enhancing rather than detracting from the bathroom's aesthetics. Some grab bars even double as towel bars and soap and toilet paper holders.

Grab bars or safety rails are important senior bathroom safety features.

For more information about how to choose the best grab bars and where to place safety rails, read this article. Yes, it even includes suction cup grab bars.

Slip-Resistant Flooring

Non-slip floors are another vital safety feature for aging in place bathrooms. Slip-resistant surfaces help to reduce the risk of falls and provide more stability when walking on wet surfaces.

Many non-slip flooring materials are available, such as vinyl, tile, rubber, and cork. Each material has advantages and disadvantages, so it's important to research and select the best option for your bathroom needs.

Adequate Lighting

If you're looking for the biggest bang for your buck with a bathroom renovation, it's lighting. LED lights have advanced dramatically in recent years resulting in many cost-effective, diverse, and attractive options. A stroll down the lighting aisle of the home improvement store is, well....enlightening.

Good lighting is important aspect of aging in place bathroom design

Adequate lighting is essential for any bathroom, but especially for aging in place bathrooms. Older eyes need more light with less glare, so selecting proper lighting helps to reduce fall risk and improve bathroom comfort and convenience.

Natural lighting is preferred, but there are many artificial lighting options to enhance naturally occurring bathroom light and for nighttime illumination. No kidding, you can even add a multi-color light to your toilet bowl!

There are three types of lighting - general, accent, and task lighting. The goal? Have all three types of light fixtures placed strategically around the bathroom to provide enough light for various bathroom activities.

Aging in Place Bathroom Design - Next Steps

Aging in place bathroom design is essential for seniors who wish to remain independent and safe. Seniors can confidently enjoy their bathrooms by selecting the correct key features for new construction or remodeling projects. With accessible design and universal design concepts, thoughtful planning, and the best safety features, age in place bathrooms can be functional, safe, and aesthetically pleasing.

An age in place bathroom remodel is just one aspect of creating a future-ready home. When you're ready to determine if your home has the essential home features needed to age in place, this roadmap will be your guide. 

About the Author

As a home health Physical Therapist for over 20 years, I help clients solve home dilemmas so they can live their best life.

I'm here to use that same problem-solving expertise and training as a Certified Aging in Place Specialist to help you create an optimized home that's forward-thinking and future-ready to support you and your loved ones well for a lifetime.

Ready to discover your Golden Girl strategy for a retirement-ready home?