Home Improvement Tips for the Aging and Elderly – Part 1

How to Create a Safe Haven for Independent Living

Part 1 of 3

Staying Independent and Safe In The Home

Photo Courtesy of IstockPhoto.com

Seniors are living longer in their homes today than in the past, thanks to thoughtful products designed to aid independent living and through consumer education on senior home safety. (Photo courtesy of Istockphoto.com)

If you pay attention to health and medical news, you won’t be surprised to learn that people are living longer, healthier lives today than they were just a few decades ago. As a result, senior populations are expanding and more people eventually experience health issues common amongst the elderly: arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis and hearing and vision loss. Most seniors will reach a point in their lives when they need specialized environments to safely retain their independence.

There are a surprising number of home improvements you can perform that will help make life easier and more secure for yourself or elderly family members and friends. These home improvements range from major projects like installing safer flooring to small improvements like simply rearranging furniture into safer configurations.

The ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities is a great resource for ideas on how to make a home easier to live in and more accessible to people as they age. Many of the published guidelines, particularly requirements for corridor and door widths, safety bars and proper access to different types of facilities (bathrooms, for example) can go a long way to extending the amount of time an elderly or physically impaired individual can live independently.

Bathroom Specific Improvements

General Bathroom Improvements

Falls and slips are one of the most common causes of injury to elderly people. The combination of smooth surfaces and ample water make the bathroom one of the most dangerous rooms in the home. A significant number of injuries occur as people try to enter and exit their baths or showers, use toilets and sinks, and maneuver over wet floor surfaces. For this reason, it is extremely important that the bathroom be updated for an elderly person or person with limited mobility. If you can only afford to make a few home improvements, bathrooms are the best place to start. The most basic improvements are fairly inexpensive and provide enhanced safety.

  • If possible, doors should not open into the bathroom, so that the person has ample space to maneuver when inside the bathroom while the door is open.
  • Ideally, there should be at least 30” x 48” of open space in front of countertops, sinks, toilets, bathtubs and showers to provide proper and safe access to these fixtures.
  • Mirrors should be hung lengthwise and placed on the back of doors or directly above the sink instead of at standing eye level, so people confined to wheelchairs are able to use them.
  • Grab bars should be installed parallel to the floor or at a slight diagonal (with the slope facing the person in the sitting position) in the following places:
    • Alongside the toilet
    • In the tub/shower areas
  • Grab bars can also be installed vertically in the shower area as well to provide stability walking in and out of the shower.
  • Besides aiding in balance and stability, grab bars also help people maintain strength, in that they encourage pushing and pulling or supporting one’s weight when they are used, and work muscles that may otherwise not enjoy the exercise.

Bathroom Cabinets and Countertops

The ultimate solution for a fully accessible bathroom for the elderly employs lifts, or mechanical devices that lower and raise different portions of a bathroom’s cabinets and counter top spaces to adjust to the user’s desired height. While expensive, the result allows anyone, no matter their physical limitation, to access bathroom storage and products easily and is a wonderful home improvement for all ages. If lifts are not a feasible option, there are other considerations for standard cabinets that are helpful to implement for improved safety.

  • Having varying heights of countertop surfaces greatly enhances a bathroom’s usability as people age and become mobility challenged, whether they are confined to a wheelchair, need walking and standing aids, or are unable to stoop or bend easily. The normal height for a countertop is 36”. Lower counters that are between 28” and 34” are easier to user by people in wheelchairs or by people who need to sit while performing everyday tasks. There should be at least 29” of clearance (from the floor up) under the counter to allow people in wheelchairs and with walking devices to get close enough to the counter to comfortable use it.
  • Because a person in a wheelchair might bring their legs or lower part of their body in contact with the plumbing below the sink, it’s important that you insulate the pipes, particularly the hot water and drainage pipes, to prevent any burns from the hot water moving through them while the sink is in use.
  • Lower bathroom cabinets by 3” to 5” from standard heights to make more of the shelves accessible to most people, so items are easier to access and move.
  • Remove older medicines, over the counter medicines and other harmful items from medicine cabinets so that a person doesn’t get confused and mistakenly take wrong or outdated pills or ingest harmful products.

Toilets and Bidets

The ability to sit and stand is taken for granted by most adults, but for those with strength, balance or mobility issues, it can be a very difficult task. Creating a safe and secure environment for the elderly around toilets and bidets can not only prevent injury, but also can help preserve an individual’s dignity by extending their ability to function independently.

  • Toilet seats and bidet seats should be at least 17” in height to allow for easy sitting and standing. Seat extenders are available to retrofit toilets that are shorter.
  • Make sure toilets and bidets are not placed in small alcoves or are not too close to vanities, shower stalls or other fixtures in the bathroom. There should be plenty of space around the toilet or bidet to maneuver with wheelchairs or walking aids.
  • Toilet seat lights help provide light in darker rooms or at night and can help an elderly person find the fixture in the middle of the night, help with depth perception, and illuminate the area to prevent trips and falls.
  • Toilet and bidet handles should be large, easy to grip and easy to use.


Walk-In Tubs like American Standard’s Safety Tubs® ST6032 model are designed to help make bathing a safer, independent experience for many seniors. The most thoughtful tubs are designed with therapeutic hydrotherapy systems as well. (ST 6032 photo copyright© American Standard)

Bathtubs should be easy to enter and exit and one of the best solutions is a walk-in tub, which are tubs with doors that allow you to enter the tub over a low threshold, close the door behind you, and then either fill the tub for a bath or take a shower. Most walk-in tubs come with molded seats that are part of the tub itself, and some brands of walk-in tubs come with therapeutic options like hydrotherapy and aromatherapy that can significantly reduce the pain or discomfort of many common ailments. Some, like the Safety Tub® from American Standard, also include comfort options like water pumps that drain water out of the tub faster and include an ADA compliant seat and leak-proof door guarantee. Low profile bathtubs are better than regular height bathtubs, but they still require a person to step over and into them and they do not usually include molded seats, nor are they easy to sit or lie down in.

Walk-In Tubs

  • The most thoughtfully designed walk-in tubs have large, oversized doors that open fully for easy exit/entry.
  • Any tub designed for the elderly should include anti-scald controls, or offer them as an option.
  • Walk-in tub doors should employ watertight door seals to avoid leaks that may potentially cause slips and falls when exiting.
  • Controls should be ergonomic, large, intuitive and easy to use.
  • The space inside the tub should be spacious enough to accommodate larger adults comfortably.
  • Molded chair-height seats should comply with 17” chair height requirements from the ADA.
  • The tub should incorporate grab bars for safety when entering/exiting the tub and to aid with sitting and standing.
  • The floor of the tub should be a non-slip surface to ensure good footing when entering or exiting the tub, or while standing in the tub during a bath or shower.
  • Look for convenience options like hand held showers that allow users to stay seated while bathing and fast draining pumps that allow people to exit the tub faster to keep their comfort level at a maximum.

Other Tubs

  • If a bathtub doesn’t come with a seat already molded into its structure, add a separate seat or bench to the tub so users can sit while bathing, reducing the chance for slip and falls. Benches and seats should be positioned at least 2” from the sides of the tubs on either side to make sure the seat feet are stable and on flat surfaces, or be secured to walls with bolts to prevent it from moving or tipping over.
  • Bathtubs should have non-slip floors and surfaces to prevent slips and falls


Safety Tubs® Seated Safety Shower from American Standard provides numerous safety features and a unique, ADA height compliant seat, making it an attractive choice for seniors looking for alternatives to bathtubs. (Seated Safety Shower ® photo copyright © American Standard)

Showers should be wide, and paired with a set of wide shower doors or an easy to move curtain so they are easy to enter and exit. The threshold to enter them should be as low as possible, to make it easy to step into and out of the stall, and to lessen the likelihood of trips or falls. The best all around shower option is the Seated Safety ShowerTM from American Standard. It has many thoughtful safety features integrated into its design including a wide door, wide seat and wrap around grab bar.

  • Look for extremely wide openings (like the width of a standard tub) to allow for very easy access by mobility-impaired people.
  • Built-in grab bars will provide ultimate safety while the user is standing or sitting, entering or exiting the shower stall.
  • Like a bathtub, it’s imperative a shower have a non-slip floor to keep slips and falls to a minimum.
  • Showers usually have fairly low thresholds for easy access, so be sure to find one that’s as low as possible. Also, be sure the threshold is not deeper than normal so it’s easy to step over.
  • The inclusion of a wide, contoured, full-sized seating area will make it much easier for people to sit and stand and will provide a more comfortable shower experience.
  • If a shower doesn’t come with a seat already molded into its structure, then it should contain separate but sturdy seats or benches for sitting while bathing to lessen the opportunity for slips and falls. Benches and seats should be extremely sturdy and stable with all four feet evenly supporting the weight of the bather on a flat surface, or they can be secured to the wall to be sure they do not move or tip over.

(Continued in Part 2 of 3)