As seniors get older, mobility and balance become bigger issues. Slips and falls can become more frequent, making some places in the home more dangerous. A full 80 percent of falls happen in the bathroom, according to the National Institute on Aging, so making a bathtub safe for an elderly loved one can keep them safe and give you great peace of mind.
In this article we’ll answer some important questions about how to make a bathtub safe for elderly people, including:
- What is the correct way to get out of a bathtub
- Where should grab bars be placed in a bathtub
- How long should a grab bar be
- Are suction grab bars safe
The good news is, it’s not very expensive to improve on bathtub safety. Easy fixes include some or all of these:
- Installing grab bars in the bathtub area
- Using a tension pole
- Providing a shower chair
- Using a handheld shower head for bathing
- Putting nonslip mats right outside the bathtub
- Providing a bathtub transfer bench
Bathroom Falls And Injuries Among The Elderly
Falling is a serious issue for the elderly. One out of four elderly people (those age 65 and older) fall each year.
Each year, 3 million older people are treated in emergency departments for fall injuries. – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
At an older age, these falls aren’t usually just a simple bruise either. In fact, one out of five elderly falls causes a serious injury, like a broken bone or head injury. The CDC reports that, “Over 800,000 patients a year are hospitalized because of a fall injury, most often because of a head injury or hip fracture.”
Far-Reaching Effects Of Falls
Unfortunately, the pain doesn’t stop with that first fall. Once an elderly person has fallen, their chances of falling again are doubled.
Falls also have a psychological effect on elderly people. If they do fall, they become more fearful of falling again. As a result, some seniors subconsciously start to cut back on their daily activities.
*NOTE: Because of the serious effects of falling, it’s important that an elderly person always check in with their doctor after a fall.
There are some known risk factors that contribute to falling. While they are not specific to the bathroom, usually a fall isn’t due to one specific risk but results from a combination of factors. These risk factors are:
- Lower body weakness
- Vitamin D deficiency
- Walking and balance difficulties
- Certain medications, which can affect balance and how steady a senior is on their feet
- Vision problems
- Foot pain or poor footwear (or footwear that has worn down on the bottom of the soles)
- Home hazards (broken steps, throw rugs, clutter an elderly person might slip on, or slippery surfaces like tile)
A doctor can address some of these risks by evaluating the senior’s medications, recommending a vitamin D supplement, and/or recommending that the person has their eyes checked.
An elder can also address the non-medical issues on their own. Strength and balance exercises, like chair yoga or exercise programs tailored to seniors, will make their legs stronger and improve balance. Going through the senior’s home and clearing out things they could trip over is also helpful, as is putting a second railing up on their stairs and adding grab bars next to the toilet and inside the bathtub or shower.
What Is The Correct Way To Get Out Of A Bathtub?
An extremely helpful way to prevent falling in the bathroom is to know the correct way to get out of the bathtub. Besides advancing age, things like arthritis, bad joints, and other elderly conditions make this a trickier process than when we were young. Think about it – we all have learned to just stand up and then put one leg over the side of the tub followed by the other. But when a senior gets out the tub this way (especially with wet feet), it is a recipe for a fall.
Instead, here is the correct way to get out of a bathtub:
- Start from a sitting position on the floor of the bathtub.
- Grab the edge of the bathtub (make sure it’s dry first) and pull yourself towards it until you have rolled onto your side.
- Put your hands flat on the tub floor, then shift onto your hands and knees so you’re facing the bottom of the bathtub.
- Push yourself up onto your knees while holding both edges of the tub. You should be on your knees now.
- Slowly raise your knees off the floor of the bathtub while continuing to hold the edges of the tub until you are standing.
- Lift one leg and bring it over the side of the bathtub while still holding onto the edges of the bathtub. (It’s very important that the floor beside the tub is not wet – a non-slip mat is even better.)
- Raise your other leg and bring it over the side of the tub while still holding the edges of the bathtub.
Following the steps for the correct way to get out of a bathtub should help with falls but an even better preventative step is installing a grab bar.
What Is A Grab Bar?
A grab bar is exactly what it sounds like – a bar in the bathtub that an elderly person can grab onto for support.
Having a grab bar in the bathtub adds not only physical support for a senior, but psychological support as well. As I mentioned earlier, the fear of falling may prevent a person from continuing their normal daily activities.
In this case, if an elderly individual is afraid of falling in the bathtub, they may start skipping baths or showers, which can lead to hygiene problems such as infections and skin issues.
I know it seems extreme to think that one would just stop attending to personal care after a fall, but in an elderly person’s mind, the fear is very real. A grab bar helps ease that fear and is a fairly affordable option.
Where Should Grab Bars Be Placed In A Bathtub?
Once you decide which type of grab bar (horizontal or vertical) works best for your family, you need to figure out where to place the grab bar in the bathtub or shower area.
You should position the grab bars in places where it will be comfortable for the user. This means it could be installed vertically, horizontally or at an angle.
I recommend three grab bars in the shower stall:
- One at the entrance to the bathtub
- One along the side wall of the bathtub
- One by the faucet handle
At The Entrance To The Bathtub
A vertical grab bar in front of the bathtub is a good idea. This would work best on the wall right outside the tub, on the end opposite the faucet, so the senior can hold onto it while climbing into the bathtub.
A grab bar outside the bathtub is a good idea because it prevents someone from grabbing onto something less stable like a towel bar or sliding glass door.
On The Wall Inside The Bathtub
Inside the tub, you have a couple of different options for grab bars. You can place a horizontal grab bar above the faucet and temperature knob or install a vertical bar just to the side. This allows an elderly person to hold onto it while operating the temperature knob.
You can also place a horizontal grab bar – or even two – on the long wall of the bathtub. If you place two, that gives the senior one to reach for as they start to get up and then another to hold onto as they continue getting up.
“I fell in the tub. I was leaning on the soap dish and the soap dish came out of the wall with quarter of the wall, so I fell.” – J. from New York
At least one of the horizontal grab bars along the wall should be placed about 30 inches from the bathtub floor. This is a good height so that it can be used while showering or when getting in and out of the bath.
The exact placement of the grab bars varies slightly depending on the height of the person that needs them. As you put them in, just picture creating a handrail that will be accessible from all areas of the bathtub.
How Long Should A Grab Bar Be?
The length of the grab bar will vary somewhat depending on the dimensions of your bathtub. In general, the longer the grab bar, the better. As I just mentioned, you want to create a handrail that an elderly person can reach from all areas of the bathtub.
Another factor when it comes to the length of the grab bar is that it is best to get a 16-inch grab bar or one that with a length that is a multiple of 16 (i.e., 32-inches or 48-inches). This is because most studs are located 16-inches apart. It is best to attach grab bars to studs so they are as sturdy as possible. You can use an anchoring device, like SecureMount Anchors from Moen, if you don’t have any other options, however fastening the grab bar to a stud is best.
Are Suction Grab Bars Safe?
Suction grab bars, like the Changing Lifestyles Safe-Er-Grip Balance Assist Bar, do what their name says – they suction to the bathroom wall. Suction grab bars are popular because they don’t have to be permanently installed. If the senior moves, they are portable, plus you don’t have to fill in holes or patch drywall if you reposition it.
For these reasons, you may think a suction grab bar is a good idea, but it would be best to think again. Suction grab bars can easily shift or simply lose their suction.
Suction grab bars will only suction to a flat surface, so they won’t work on all bathtub surfaces (like painted tile). They also generally won’t work on the small tiles you often find in older bathrooms because the suction cups are too large. This type of grab bar can NOT be used on drywall (or any other porous surface), so you really can only put them in a bathroom.
PLEASE NOTE: suction grab bars are strictly for helping the user steady themselves. They WILL NOT support any body weight! They could be dangerous if your senior loved one relies on it to hold them up of if they grab for it as they are falling.
The suction cups frequently release on their own (you know this if you have ever tried to hang something on a window with a suction cup). If your senior loved one has these in their bathtub area, please ensue they check the grab bar before each use, to ensure they are still attached to the surface.
We strongly recommend that you do not trust a suction grab bar! A bolted in grab bar is your best bet when it comes to making a bathtub safe for elderly.
Integrated Grab Bars
Manufacturers are getting very creative with integrating the function of a grab bar with products that you already use in the bathroom.
Here’s an example of a grab bar that is integrated with a shelf to give you an idea of how they are doing this.
Moen makes this particular product. It can be installed at any angle and will support up to 250 pounds of weight. Moen says the weight it will support increases to 500 pounds if the grab bar is fastened to a stud or when installing it on the bathtub wall with SecureMount Anchors (sold separately).
If grab bars are not suitable – then we can recommend a bathtub lift which is basically a mechanical seat that is placed in your bathtub which can lower you and raise you back up using a remote control.