With hard floors, wet surfaces and small spaces in which to turn around, a bathroom can be the most dangerous room in the house.
Relatively inexpensive bathroom modifications for the elderly
Adding grab bars, lever-handles, a tub chair straddling the tub, a shower head on a flexible cord and a toilet topper or frame is easy and relatively inexpensive. A contractor can install a higher toilet, replace the tub with a walk-in/roll-in shower and, for the wheelchair-bound, lower the light switches and the sink and make space under the counter.
Ways to help a senior get around the bathroom
There are also things we can do to help someone get around the bathroom, with or without modifications. We can start by explaining each step and waiting patiently for them to understand what they need to do and follow through on their own time, giving physical assistance and verbal cues. Physical assistance should not include pulling on their arms or under their shoulders, which is more likely to throw them off balance. Instead, in the bathroom and anywhere someone needs to shift their weight but could become unsteady, we can use a gait belt secured around their waist.
Using the toilet safely
How do we know that the person is safely seated on the toilet? Getting into position, the backs of their legs should touch the toilet; they should grasp the toilet, a grab bar or vanity for support. Even if the toilet has been raised, their feet should still be able to rest flat on the floor.
Avoiding falls in the tub
Tubs are dangerous: tub falls are the top cause of personal injury suits brought by guests against hotels. Using a gait belt, we can help someone stand so that the backs of their legs touch the tub and are in line with the tub chair. They should then grab the back of the tub chair with one hand and a grab bar or the side of the tube with another. Still using the gait belt, we can help them lower onto the side of the chair. They can then move the hand holding the grab bar or tub onto the tub chair. They may need our help to lift their legs, one at a time, over the lip of the tub and into it and to center themselves in the tub chair.
Inexpensive ways to help seniors in the bathroom
A paint job is also an inexpensive way to help. Because vision decreases with age, it is important to use different colors for the vanity and the floor, the grab bars and the tile or wall.
Floors, in addition to being kept clean and dry, can be of a “surfaced” or anti-skid material.
A bathmat with a nonskid base and non-slip strips in the tub or shower can be lifesavers.
Typical bathroom doors lock and unlock only from the inside. These should be replaced with doors which can be unlocked from either side to avoid people accidentally getting locked in.
Because someone may well need to use the bathroom when no one else is present, a call device should be worn around the neck: no one can push a call button when they have fallen to the floor.
The bathroom need not be the most dangerous room in the house.
Estate Planning attorney, Terry Garrett, is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is active in the Texas and Austin Bar Associations. She graduated with honors from Cornell University. She was on the Dean’s List at Wharton Business School. She earned her J.D. at Columbia Law School, receiving the Parker Award and a Mellon Fellowship.
She assists families of people with special needs, people planning for the retirement years and people administering estates.