Create a beautiful bathroom for the ages

Attractive upgrades that make the bathroom a safer place

Published: July 30, 2015 06:00 AM

 M ost people want to stay in their homes as long as possible. Trouble is, their homes may not be aging as well as they are. Take the bathroom. Because of its hard and slippery surfaces, almost 235,000 people visit the emergency room each year with injuries suffered while bathing, showering, or using the facilities. Despite that, many homeowners resist even small changes that would make the room safer because they fear their beautiful bathroom will end up looking institutional. (Check out these 5 steps to a safer bathroom.)

But that’s now changing. The very things that make your bathroom safer and easier to navigate—large, walk-in showers; higher toilets; natural lighting—are also some of the latest design trends. It’s like hiding vegetables in the meal of a finicky eater. You can conceal safety upgrades with sleek design, clever innovations­—and a few euphemisms.

“Grab bars were a real deal breaker,” says Diana Schrage, an interior designer at Kohler. Now that grab bar is being called a “shower rail.” Higher-seated toilets are “comfort height.” And easy-to-use lever handles and handheld showers are “ergonomic.”

That type of adaptable design has come to be known as “aging in place,” but some remodeling pros prefer the more friendly “visitability,” which means making your home welcoming to people of all ages and abilities.

Unlike the access features for public spaces required by the Americans with Disabilities Act for the past 25 years, aging-in-place updates are strictly residential and don’t need to follow the stringent rules put in place by the ADA, so your bathroom can be functional without looking like a hospital. “The whole idea is safety, access, comfort, and convenience,” says Steve Hoffacker, a specialist in aging-in-place design.


Create the right lighting

Glare can be a problem in a bright bathroom. Sconces on both sides of the mirror are easier on the eyes than overhead lights. Introduce natural light from a window or skylight. Install a night-light in the bathroom and in the hallway outside it. Rocker-style light switches are easier to use.

Widen the doorway

For easiest access, remove the raised sill and widen the doorway to 36 inches. Switch the handle from a knob to a lever for easier opening. If possible, hang the door to open out, not in; if someone falls against it, the door won’t be blocked.

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Enlarge the shower

A curbless shower works for someone using crutches or a walker and also for parents bathing children or the family dog. Handheld shower­heads can be anchored to an integrated grab bar. The hose should be at least 6 feet long. Add a seat (some fold up when not in use). Make sure you have good light in the shower. And hang a shelf or install a cubby that keeps toiletries within easy reach.

Keep items handy

Open shelves can be attractive if they’re tidy. Putting glass-front doors on your cabinets lets you see what’s inside without opening them. Look for cabinets with easy-close doors and drawers with D-shaped pulls instead of knobs.

Photo: Kohler

Re-think the sink

A countertop at two heights is good for every member of the family. Sinks should be wall-mounted, leaving space underneath for someone seated. Faucets with lever handles are best. A full-length mirror is better for someone seated, who may have trouble looking into a medicine cabinet mirror that’s above the sink.

Install nonslip floors

Water and slick tile are a bad combination. Look for slip-resistant tile or vinyl. The more textured the tile, the less slippery it is. The ceramic tile industry has adopted a slip-resistance test that measures the dynamic coefficient of friction. The higher the number, the better the slip resistance. Ideally, you’re looking for 0.42 or higher. Smaller tiles embedded in grout also provide more friction.

Photo: Moen

Grab bars that do double duty

You can find bars that match towel racks and other fixtures—even ones that function as shelves and toilet paper holders. Place them at the entrance to the shower or tub, inside the shower or tub, and near the toilet.

Consider tub options

Getting in and out of the bathtub can be tricky for anyone with mobility problems. Some bathtubs are outfitted with a wider edge that you can sit down on first, then swing your legs into the tub. A number of manufacturers make walk-in tubs. One type has a door that swings in or out, but you can fill and drain the tub only from inside. Kohler makes a tub with a side that rises up and down. Installing any of those tubs can be costly, and some are less attractive than others.

How to find a pro who knows

When you want to make aging-in-place modifications, you need more than an interior designer or a general contractor. The credential you want is Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS). To earn that certification, people in the industry—designers, remodelers, occupational therapists—take a three-day course that covers marketing, building and design, and business management. Collaboration is encouraged, so a CAPS pro may consult other experts for a client with special needs. To find a CAPS professional, check the website of the National Association of Home Builders.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the September 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.



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