In general, walk-in tubs are safe because they have low thresholds and grab bars to help prevent falls. Built-in seats, anti-slip flooring and hand-held shower wands add to their safety. Some walk-in tubs even have anti-scald technology.
My mom wasn’t big on taking showers – she liked soaking in a nice, warm bath. As she grew older, however, I worried more about her slipping while getting in and out of the tub. And after my dad really did fall in the shower one day, my worry-quotient went through the roof, so I looked into walk-in tubs to see if they would be a better option for my parents.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 3 million older adults are treated in emergency rooms annually after a fall. They also note that “approximately 50%-60% of all falls among older adults occur at home.” The majority of falls happen in the bathroom. Since walk-in tubs offer so many safety features in one package, upgrading to this type of tub may help reduce bathroom falls.
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What Is A Walk-In Tub And Why Might It Be Safer Than Regular Tubs?
As the name implies, walk-in tubs are bathtubs that have a door on the side or front of the tub. Instead of stepping over the rim to get into one like you do with a standard tub, you simply open the door to a walk in to the tub. Seniors just sit down and relax inside the tub while waiting for it to fill. In this respect, walk-in tubs are much safer for an elderly user than traditional tubs.
To illustrate, I have a jetted garden tub in my own home. While it’s an awesome tub to soak in, I sometimes have trouble climbing over the very wide rim and I’m middle aged and limber. I can’t imagine trying to get in or out of my wide, deep tub when I’m twenty years older!
For a senior who is less agile, I can see that a walk-in tub is a much safer alternative than a regular tub.
When I was looking into these types of tubs for my parents, one of the things I wondered about was how you would wash your hair. It turns out that many walk-in tubs come with a hand-held shower wand. For both caregivers and senior uses, that makes it easy to rinse off after washing. The wand also makes it easier to rinse out the tub after bathing, which reduces soap scum and the chance of slipping and falling.
As with most things, walk-in tubs can be upgraded to include other neat features. You can add things like heated seats and head rests or safety features like a quick draining function, remote controls, and easy unlocking methods. You’ll likely also get to choose which way the door swings so you don’t have to climb around anything to get into or out of the tub.
What Are Some Safety Features of Walk-In Tubs?
Before investing in a walk-in tub, you should be aware of their good and bad points. These tubs offer safety features that most traditional tubs don’t have, which can make them a great choice for the elderly.
- Low thresholds: The standard height of a walk-in tub threshold ranges from 3” to 7” high. That means that a senior doesn’t have to raise their foot too high to get into one like they do to for a traditional bathtub, which has a 14 inch rim.
- Grab bars: In general, walk-in tubs are ADA compliant so they have at least one built in grab bar inside the tub. This makes it safer for a bather who might be in danger of sliding off the seat of the tub. Grab bars allow more independence and reduce the chance of falling while transitioning into or out of the tub. Also, if the bather does slip off the seat, a grab bar can help them keep their head above water.
- Built in seats: Walk-in tubs come with seats that are chair height. An elderly person doesn’t have worry about falling when trying to sit all the way down onto the floor of a traditional tub. They also won’t freeze while perching on a stool. Many walk-in tubs have contoured seats with anti-slip texturing. This gives the user more room to move around when bathing and makes it easier for them to get up or down without falling.
- Anti-slip flooring: It goes without saying that anti-slip flooring is a must for a walk-in tub. The bather has to sit inside the tub when it fills and drains, so anti-slip flooring reduces the risk of a fall while waiting or when entering and exiting the bath.
- Hand held shower wands: I mentioned before that I wanted this feature for my mom. A hand held wand is flexible. The bather can reach those hard to get to places on their body without worrying they will fall if they move around too much. Also, a caregiver can help the bather more easily. A hand held wand makes cleaning the tub safer, too, because you don’t have to reach over the tub’s rim to get into the nooks and crannies.
- Anti-scald technology: Some elderly people have limited mobility or may have an impairment that keeps them from being able to easily regulate the water temperature in a tub. For example, arthritic fingers may make it difficult to turn the faucet quickly if the temperature is too hot. The anti-scald temperature systems on some walk-in tub models prevent seniors from being burned.
- Heated seats: A heated seat isn’t necessarily a safety feature, but it’s nice to have one while the bather waits for the tub to fill or drain.
- Head rests and back rests: A head rest and/or back rest gives seniors a way to rest safely while waiting for the tub to fill or drain. They also will help to keep a mobility-impaired elder from sliding off the seat, the way they could if using a stool in a traditional tub.
- Quick draining functions: Some walk-in tubs can be upgraded with quick drains. In a regular walk-in tub, it may take between 7 and 15 minutes to drain. An elderly bather can’t get out of the tub until it is empty because they can’t open the door. Quick draining functions can reduce the tub’s emptying time by half. Some types will even cut it down to around 2 minutes. This makes a huge difference for a shivering bather. Most importantly, in a medical emergency, having a quick draining system could prevent drowning.
- Remote controls: Some walk-in tubs are outfitted with whirlpool jets. A floating, waterproof remote make it easy for a bather to adjust the whirlpool jets while staying seated safely.
- Easy unlocking: This safety feature allows the bather to get the door unlocked so they don’t get stuck in the tub. People have had this happen because they couldn’t open the door.
- Towel bars on the door: Some walk-in tubs feature a towel bar on the door. This eliminates the need for an unsteady person to walk across the bathroom for one while their feet are wet (which is a slipping hazard).
- Promotes better health: For those with arthritis or other medical conditions (example: amputation), warm water soaks are very therapeutic. If a walk-in tub has jets, the heat and movement of the bubbles can help increase circulation.
- Wheelchair accessibility: Some walk-in tubs are wheelchair accessible so the bather doesn’t need to transfer out of the chair and into the tub (or vice versa). The less times someone has to transfer (especially in wet conditions), the better. Being wheelchair accessible gives more independence to an elderly user and is safer for a caregiver who may be assisting the bather, as well.
- Door configuration: Walk-in tubs usually come in either right or left-hand models. This means that they are built with a door that opens to the right or to the left, depending on how your bathroom is configured. Having this feature makes it safer to use because the bather doesn’t have to try to maneuver around a toilet or bathroom cabinet, which reduces their chance of falling.
- Mold resistant coatings and purification systems: The mold resistant coatings come on many tubs to make it easier to keep them clean. Also, some walk-in tubs also feature ozone purification systems to flush the lines and reduce bacteria. This is safer for an elderly person with thinning skin who might be prone to cuts that could get infected from sitting in dirty water. (If the plumbing lines need to be cleaned and the tub does not have a purification system, it should be cleaned with something like the Oh Yuk Jetted Tub System Cleaner to remove contaminants.
What Makes Walk-In Tubs Dangerous?
As always, there is a flip side to everything. Walk-in tubs provide some benefits that make them safer than their traditional counterparts, but they also have inherent dangers that seniors should be aware of.
- Getting stuck in the tub: It doesn’t happen often, thankfully, but it is possible to get stuck in a walk-in tub. Sometimes the tub doesn’t drain. Sometimes a bather gets stuck because they slip and get wedged into the tub. The elderly husband of a 90 – year old New Jersey woman had to bail out the tub when it wouldn’t drain (you can’t open an inward opening tub door to get out if there is water in it). In 2017, the Huffington Post reported that a Chicago-area woman fell and was wedged in her tub for more than 30 hours. Her daughter found her unconscious. The accident put her in the hospital for four days and in a nursing home for three months.
- High walls: In a medical emergency (or if you were to get stuck), walk-in tubs have high walls that make it much more difficult to get someone out of the tub. These high walls also mean the tub hold more water, which is a drowning hazard. We realize that people can also drown in a traditional tub, but bathers want to fill walk-in tubs with more water so they can use the jets. If the tub doesn’t have a quick drain safety feature, it could take about 15 minutes to drain one.
- Potential for leaking: Consumer Reports reviews reveal these tubs can leak around the seals, causing water to puddle on the floor. This is a slip and fall hazard. Other owners have reported issues with the stoppers leaking, so the tub won’t hold water. Additionally, it can be tough to close and latch the doors on some models. An improperly-latched swing-out door could open while the tub is full, causing the bathroom to flood.
- Scalding: Bathers sit in the tub as it fills, so a mobility-impaired senior may get scalded if the water is too hot and they can’t adjust the temperature fast enough. If you are considering a walk-in tub, make sure to look for one with anti-scald technology.
- Can’t get out: The person who is using a walk-in tub can’t exit it until all the water has drained out. Although some walk-in tubs have heated seats and quick-drain features, if yours doesn’t, you’re in for a chilly wait until it’s empty. This can take 15 minutes in some models. Rapid fill or drain features could cut this time in half, but that still could mean around 7 – 8 minutes of shivering while the tub fills or drains. This could be dangerous for a medically compromised senior.
- Swing-in doors: Most walk-in tub doors swing in to open. This leaves very little room for a mobility-impaired senior to maneuver between the tub door and the narrow tub entrance in order to get in or out.
- Drains that are hard to open: Some seniors aren’t strong enough to open the drain plug by themselves. They may get stuck in the tub until someone opens it for them.
Safe Bathing: Are Walk-In Tubs Worth It?
Knowing whether or not a walk-in tub is worth depends on your perspective. I know, that sounds like a cop-out answer, but it’s the truth.
If, for example, your senior loved one has limited mobility, a walk-in tub could be a wonderful asset. It can make bathing safer and more accessible for them, plus it can give them some independence.
On the other hand, these tubs have some properties that could make them more dangerous than just using a shower. Also, if your senior loved one needs to invest in re-plumbing the bathroom, getting a bigger water heater, and changing out the electrical panel, they might be inclined to forget the whole thing.
If you or your elderly parent are on the fence about getting a walk-in tub, we recommend talking to the people you know who have one. Ask them what they like and dislike about the tubs. Have they had any problems with leaking or needing repairs? Do they feel safe in their tub? Would they get another one if they had to do it all over again?
Don’t rely on manufacturer’s reviews or the ones you see online, unless they come from a trusted source like Consumer Affairs. Otherwise, keep in mind that reviews can be faked!
How Much Does A Walk-In Bath Cost?
The cost of a walk-in tub plus the installation ranges anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 or maybe even more. Like most anything else, the more add-ons you choose, the higher the price.
Another factor to consider is how easily the tub can be brought in and installed. Normally, walk-in tubs are wider than standard tubs and this can pose a problem when trying to bring them in through a doorway. So, costs can go up if the doorway has to be altered to accommodate the installation process. The cost of the tub itself ranges anywhere from $2,000 to $9,000.
Because of features like whirlpool jets, you may have to upgrade your electrical panel, incurring more costs. The required plumbing or electrical upgrades can add another $3,000 – $5,000 to the cost. For more convenience, some manufacturers sell their tubs as a package, with installation included.
Another consideration: while you can use a typical 40-gallon water heater when you have a walk-in tub, most manufacturers recommend upgrading to at least a 50-gallon water heater. The reason for this is that the average user who wants to fill their tub full enough to use the whirlpool jets will need between 40 and 50 gallons of water to do so.
Of course, if you’re doing this, you’d be combining cold and hot water to get a comfortable temperature. However, even at a hot water/cold water ratio of 3:2, you’d still need to use about 30 gallons of hot water in order to full the tub to 45 gallons.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Do walk-in tubs use more water?
Yes. When completely full, a standard bathtub holds about 42 gallons, but the standard walk-in tub holds about 50 gallons. Deep walk-in tubs hold about 80 gallons and some models (two-seat tubs, for example) can hold 120 gallons when full.
Are walk-in tubs covered by Medicare?
The Medicare website notes that walk-in tubs are not considered durable medical equipment, therefore they are not covered by Medicare, Part A or Part B. If you are eligible for Medicaid, however, you might be able to get financial assistance for a walk in tub through your state.