As seniors get older, mobility and balance often 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.
The bathroom is considered the most dangerous room in the house for seniors, based on a CDC report that found 235,000 people go to the ER (emergency room) each year for a fall in the bathroom and 14% of those are hospitalized. These injuries happen while bathing or showering, but also when using the toilet.homewatchcaregivers.com
In this article we’ll explore some of the tactics that can be used to make bathtubs safer for seniors.
Please know that you can implement safety measures to protect yourself from potential hazards in the bathroom but there may come a time when a bathtub is no longer a safe option for an elderly loved one.
If this is the case, please explore other options such as walk-in bathtubs or a walk-in shower that would be safer for them.
8 Ways To Make A Bathtub Safer For Seniors
Here are some safety precautions that can be taken to make a bathtub safer for seniors:
- Install Grab Bars: These provide support for seniors when they are getting in and out of the bathtub.
- Use Non-Slip Mats: Place these inside and outside the bathtub to prevent slipping on wet surfaces.
- Use a Bath Chair or Tub Transfer Bench: These allow seniors to sit while bathing, reducing the risk of injury from falls. (Note: Bath chairs are also called shower chairs)
- Use a Handheld Shower Head: This allows seniors to bathe while in a seated position and reduces the need for reaching and stretching.
- Replace Round Faucet Handles with a Lever Faucet Handle: This makes it easier for seniors to turn the water on and off.
- Apply Non-Slip Coating: This can be applied to the bathtub surface to make it less slippery.
- Install a Bathtub Lift: This is a mechanical seat that can lower and raise a person into and out of the bathtub.
- Learn the Correct Way to Get Out of a Bathtub: Knowing the safest method to exit a bathtub can prevent falls.
For specific recommendations for your person and personal space, I recommend to consult with an Occupational Therapist or a Home Safety Specialist.
1) 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 on 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 four 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
- One clamped on the side of the bathtub
At The Entrance To The Bathtub
A vertical grab bar in front of the bathtub is a good idea. If you currently have towel racks by the bathtub you may want to consider replacing them with grab bars.
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 do they really work? In this case, 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
I am loving the new integrated grab bars. They combine a standard grab bar with mini shelving, toilet paper holders, soap holders, a towel bar, and so on.
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 also 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 something like the SecureMount Anchors I mentioned before (they’re 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.
2) About Non-Slip Mats
Of course – you will want to ensure that the floor outside of the bathtub is also non-slip and you can easily remedy that by simply laying down a non-slip bath mat like the ones we recommend here.
The non-slip surface on this type of mat provides a stable surface and a sturdy grip under your feet, even if there’s soap or water on the bottom of the tub.
Non-slip bath mats come in all shapes and sizes, so you can easily find one to fit your bathroom decor while keeping you safe and secure.
3) Bath Chair and Tub Benches
Another additional feature you may want to use is a bath chair or bathtub bench.
For anyone with limited mobility or balance issues, standing for an extended period of time can be a challenge, especially when the surface is wet.
A bathtub bench or bath seat provides a stable surface to sit on while showering, making it easier to wash hard-to-reach areas and reducing the risk of slips and falls.
There are many different varieties and the one you choose depends on your physical disabilities.
4) Handheld Shower Head
One of the easiest bathroom modifications that you can add to make a bathroom safer is a handheld shower head. They’re simple to install and can be extremely useful for older adults.
A handheld shower head can help reduce the risk of falls in several ways.
Firstly, it enables people to reach every part of their body, including difficult-to-reach areas, without having to twist and turn or reach unsteadily.
Secondly, it can give people more control over the water flow and temperature, allowing them to adjust it to the most comfortable and safe level.
Finally, by placing the shower head at a lower position, a handheld shower head can reduce the need for people to bend or stretch and maintain a more stable posture.
These advantages may seem small, but they can make a world of difference, especially for people with limited mobility or balance issues.
5) Lever Faucet Handles
I just replaced my round shower stall faucet handle with a lever model and I am so very grateful that I did!
Lever faucet handles are becoming increasingly popular, and for good reason. Not only do they look great; they also make it much easier to turn the water on and off, and even adjust the temperature.
This is especially beneficial for seniors with limited dexterity or strength in their hands. The broad handle makes it easy to grip, while a light touch is all that is needed to turn the water on and off.
6) Non-Slip Coating In The Bathtub
Non-slip coatings for bathtubs are great safety features for any home, but especially ones where older adults live.
They are an effective way to enhance safety in the bathroom, especially for senior citizens. These coatings are designed to create a textured, slip-resistant surface on the floor of the bathtub, reducing the risk of falls when the tub is wet.
They are typically made from materials such as epoxy resin, and they adhere directly to the surface of the bathtub. The coating is usually clear or white, allowing it to blend seamlessly with the existing bathtub design.
Steps to Applying Non-Slip Coating
Applying a non-slip coating is a relatively straightforward process.
- The bathtub surface needs to be thoroughly cleaned and dried first.
- Then, the coating is applied, often with a roller or brush, and allowed to dry. It’s crucial to follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely to ensure the coating adheres properly and provides the desired level of slip resistance.
- Once applied, the coating is durable and can withstand regular use, but it may need to be reapplied over time to maintain its effectiveness.
While non-slip coatings can significantly improve bathtub safety, they should be used in conjunction with other safety measures, such as grab bars and non-slip mats, for maximum protection.
Bath Mats and Stickers
Another method you can use to make the bathtub floor less slippery is to use Bath Mats or Bathtub Stickers.
7) About Bathtub Lifts
Bathtub lifts are an excellent tool for seniors who have mobility issues or difficulty getting in and out of the bathtub.
These devices are essentially mechanical seats that are placed in the bathtub and can lower and raise a person into and out of the bath water.
They operate using a motor and are typically controlled by a handheld remote, allowing the user to control their movement in and out of the tub at a comfortable and safe pace.
There are various types of bathtub lifts available, including inflatable models, reclining lifts, and fixed-seat lifts.
Inflatable lifts use air to raise and lower the seat, while reclining lifts allow the user to recline and relax in the tub.
Fixed-seat lifts, on the other hand, maintain a constant seat position. The choice between these types depends on the individual’s needs and preferences.
Bathtub lifts can significantly improve the bathing experience for seniors, making it safer and more comfortable. They reduce the risk of slips and falls, and also lessen the need for caregiver assistance, thereby promoting independence.
However, it’s important to ensure that the chosen lift fits the bathtub properly and that the user knows how to operate it safely. As with any safety device, a bathtub lift should be part of a comprehensive approach to bathroom safety for seniors.
8) How to Get Out of a Bathtub Safely
An extremely helpful way to prevent falling in the bathroom is to know the safest 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 safest way to get out of a bathtub if you are not using a bath chair or have grab bars installed:
Note: this assumes that you have enough upper body strength to pull yourself up and that you are able to get onto your hands and knees. If not, then please do not get into the tub and opt for a walk-in shower instead.
- 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. (Have a towel within easy reach to dry the bathtub’s edge).
- 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.
- If it’s easier, you can raise one leg to put one foot flat on the floor of the tub and then repeat the process with the second leg.
- While still holding on to the edge of the bathtub, lift one leg and bring it over the side 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.
- Once both legs are out of the tub, if you need to hold on to something to get upright, grab onto your sink or a nearby wall.
Following these steps may help with falls but the best things to do, in my opinion, is to use a bath chair or bench, non-slip surfaces inside the tub and on your bathroom floor and grab bars.
Bathroom Falls And Injuries Among The Elderly
The reason that bathtub safety is so very important for elderly individuals is that this type of fall can result in serious injuries, including fractures and traumatic brain injuries.
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
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.”
Fall risk is particularly high in the bathroom, making it the most dangerous place for seniors. The hard surfaces of a bathtub or shower increase the likelihood of slips and falls.
Therefore, having fall protection measures in place, such as the ones we mention below, is essential to help reduce this risk.
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.
Making these simple changes to your bathtub area can go a long way to make the bathtub safer for yourself or senior loved ones.