If you are in your fifties or sixties and planning a major renovation of your primary bathroom or embarking on building your forever home, then it is worth thinking about designing your new space with Aging in Place (or Living in Place) principles in mind. The main goal of Aging in Place design principles is to allow you to remain in your home as long as possible and to minimize the need for future costly and disruptive modifications. No one likes to talk about getting old, or even older, and I’ve learned that many of my clients do not want to be reminded of their mortality. But, as their interior designer, it’s my job to raise the issue, especially in the case of a bathroom remodel or design for clients who plan to stay in their home into their 80s and 90s.
Aging in Place and Living in Place recommendations draw heavily on the principles of Universal Design. Universal Design is the design of space so that is can be utilized and enjoyed to its full extend by as many people as possibly regardless of their ability, including age, mobility, vision, hearing, etc. I like to remind my clients that although they may not experience any limitations right now, anyone can experience a fall, injury, or health issue that could make using their home a challenge. So often, the presence of an accessible bathroom in a home can be the difference between being able to remain at home or having to find alternative arrangements.
In this post, I will specifically address how you can design your primary bathroom for Aging in Place, but many of these ideas can be applied to multiple areas of your home. They can also benefit your and your loved ones if you should experience a period of reduced mobility from a health issue.
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Why should I consider Aging in Place when planning my primary bathroom design?
As I mentioned above, design for Aging in Place draws on the tenets of Universal Design. Many people think that Universal Design is about creating handicapped accessible spaces, but it’s actually much broader in its application.
When I mention Aging in Place (or Living in Place) to my clients, their minds immediately jump to thinking about being in a wheelchair, and they tend to react negatively because they understandably don’t want imagine that scenario. It’s possible to be guided by Universal Design principles in your home and not extend them as far as creating a wheelchair accessible space. It’s all about your particular needs for your home. Meeting ADA guidelines for wheelchair accessibility in an existing home can be tricky but is not always impossible. I am not going to cover wheelchair accessibility in this post because I feel like it requires a different approach and mindset that involves the entire home.
So how do you design an Aging in Place bathroom?
Follow along, as I outline my best tips for creating the perfect bathroom to work with you as you get older or for anyone who needs a bathroom designed to accommodate limited mobility. We will discuss accessibility, ergonomics, materials, and lighting to name a few areas that provide opportunities for improving the functionality of your bathroom.
#1 Start at the Entrance
The first barrier to a bathroom that accommodates a broader range of users is the doorway. Many older homes have bathrooms with doors that are only 28″ wide. If there is enough room for adjusting the framing, consider enlarging the door to at least 32″.
Although we aren’t talking specifically about wheelchair access, 32″ is the minimum door opening to accommodate a wheelchair. And, it’s actually easier to navigate a wider opening with a walker or assistant as well. While you’re at it, switch out any round door knobs for lever handles. Lever handles on doors are more ergonomic and easier to operate whether you have arthritic hands or are simply carrying something.
If the space allows, you could replace the traditional hinged door with a pocket door and automate the open/close function.
There are special hinges that you can install on your bathroom door that will allow for more clearance into the space. These hinges use the same screw holes as the existing hinges. They are also great for when your architecture simply does not permit for a larger door opening.
#2 Install Blocking for Grab Bars
Grab bars can provide extra support in multiple areas of your bathroom. The best time to install blocking (extra 2×4 studs in the framing) in your walls for grab bars at your toilet and in your shower is during a major bathroom remodel. If you should need a grab bar later, it will be impossible to install it without proper blocking, and you don’t want to rip out all that pretty tile you just installed. You don’t even need to install the grab bars right away. Make sure the contractor notes their location on your plans, and you can add them later when they become necessary.
Don’t worry that your grab bars need to look industrial or like a hospital bathroom. There are many beautifully designed grab bars on the market for all styles of bathroom. Delta Faucet, for example, makes some lovely grab bars that look like heavy duty towel bars.
The top three areas to install grab bars in your bathroom are on the side wall of the toilet, behind the toilet, along the shower walls, and at the tub. Consider a combination of horizontal and vertical style grab bars. The exact location of grab bars is specific to the layout and design of the space.
#3 Design Your Shower for Aging in Place
Aside from grab bar blocking, there are a few other design elements you should include in your shower. First, you will want to enlarge the shower to at least 5′ x 3′ even if it means eliminating your tub.
A Curbless or Low Threshold Entry
Discuss installing a curbless or very low curb shower with your contractor. A curbless shower has no threshold to step over, reducing your likelihood of falling. And, FYI, I actually fell stepping over the curb in our shower while pregnant, so this issue doesn’t only affect older people.
If you are renovating an existing home, there can be challenges to installing a custom formed curbless shower depending on the construction of your home. You should consult with a contractor prior to assuming that you can move forward with this design. Even in new construction, there can be issues with going fully curbless. One tile installer we work with does not warranty a zero threshold shower for leaks because he can’t install the waterproof membrane to his standards.
One alternative to the custom formed zero entry base is a pre-formed accessible base. It’s more cost effective from both a material and labor perspective. Kohler makes some good looking options in various configurations and sizes that should be available through your plumbing supplier.
The Shower Door
At our old house, we designed our new shower to be curbless with a coordinating mosaic on the shower floor for extra slip resistance. Be aware that if you go curbless with a swinging door, the door should be able to fully swing into the shower. Otherwise, if you have to swing it out after you shower, the water will drip onto the floor. With a curbless shower, you can’t have a bath mat in front of the door if you want it to swing out at all.
A shower door absolutely needs to swing out. If someone should fall in the shower and block the door swing, no one would be able to help them if the door doesn’t swing out. An outward swinging door is standard, but sometimes homeowners who are DIYing their design might not realize this until they are well into the process. It’s also important to note that if your door is hinged on the wall, you do not want hooks or towel bars directly behind it because it will hit them when fully open.
If your bathroom is large enough, consider eliminating the shower door altogether. If a door is necessary, then enlarge it from the standard 24″ to 32″. A sliding barn shower door style is a perfect solution rather than a swinging glass door.
The Shower Bench
Include a shower bench that is at least 18″ deep and 18″ high. I would make the bench wider, spanning the width of the shower. If you’ve ever shaved your legs in a shower without a bench, you know how difficult it is. Every shower needs some sort of bench or shaving niche!
There may come a time when you do actually want to sit while you shower, and it might not have anything to do with getting old. You could break your ankle or have your hip replaced.
Corner benches are not optimal for this scenario. And, make sure you add a recessed wall niche or shelf that is accessible from a seated position at the bench.
The bench does not have to be permanent. By planning a 5′ x 3′ shower, you can always bring in a portable bench if it becomes necessary. If floor space is at a premium, consider a folding teak bench. If you add the blocking during construction, you can add this bench later when you need it. Removable teak benches are also a great option. More and more of our clients do not want a stone or tile top bench because it’s cold to sit on. Teak is a much more comfortable and affordable alternative.
Add a separate hand shower on an adjustable bar close to the bench. I always specify a hand shower for cleaning anyway. Hand showers can be installed on an adjustable bar, which is my preference for the greatest flexibility. They can also be installed on a hook. For an Aging in Place bathroom, you definitely want a separate hand shower and not a hand shower that is combined with the main showerhead. The hand shower needs to be lower so it can be accessed from a seated position.
When you choose your plumbing, you’ll have the option to combine your shower control valves so that they all operate from one place. If you have a large shower, you may want to consider a separate valve control just for the hand shower.
Choose plumbing fixtures with lever handles instead of cross handles. Yes, the cross handles can look more upscale but they are harder to operate if you develop joint issues.
The Shower Floor
Use an anti-slip mosaic tile for the shower floor if you are not using a preformed shower pan. Mosaics, by nature, are less slippery because there are so many grout lines. Often a curbless shower is installed with a linear drain, the purpose of which is to continue the main bathroom floor seamlessly into the shower. It’s a cool look, but I would not do it in this situation unless that tile is textured, like many of the faux wood tiles. When you are selecting your floor tile, you can check the manufacturer’s specification. Many will call out if a tile is rated for shower floors.
This screenshot below is from Bedrosians and shows one of their mosaic penny round tiles. You can see in their specs on the right that it is rated for shower floors. A small mosaic tile like this one has lots of edges and grout which makes it ideal for shower floors.
#4 Choose Finishes & Materials Thoughtfully
As you age, your vision will naturally degenerate. One way to compensate for the loss of vision in design is by incorporating high contrast at changes in plane (horizontal to vertical). For instance, if you select a medium to dark floor, you may want to paint your baseboards white so that the change in plane from floor to wall is obvious. If you choose dark cabinets, then select light countertops.
Next, make sure your floor tile has a high coefficient of friction and use smaller tiles so that you have more grout lines. I think the wood and brick look tiles are actually perfect for a Universal Design bathroom because many of them are textured. Avoid high-contrast patterned mosaics which can seem to vibrate.
#5 Install a Floating Vanity
If you raise your vanity off the floor by 9″, it will make your bathroom feel larger and add a contemporary vibe to the design. It will also accommodate the wheels of a walker. This is definitely one of those Universal Design principles no one will ever think twice about. Guests will just think you have a cool modern bathroom. You should install the countertop height at 34″, which is 2″ lower than standard height.
Some other vanity features that you can incorporate into your accessible bathroom remodel are:
- Create a seated makeup counter. If it gets harder for you to stand as you age, or if you have a mobility issue, you may prefer to dry your hair and apply your makeup while seated.
- Install a swing-out, lighted makeup mirror with a magnifying option. These are great for shaving too, completely illuminate your face, and make everything easier to see (good and bad). You also don’t have to lean over the counter to see yourself.
- Install pulls instead of knobs. Pulls are easier to grasp than knobs, especially for arthritic fingers.
- Select a faucet for your sink that has a single lever handle, which is the easiest style to operate.
#6 Design Your Lighting with Intention
In order to use your bathroom safely, you need to be able to see properly. A variety of light fixtures can provide adequate lighting at the vanity, in the shower, and throughout the space.
The best vanity lighting configuration is a sconce on either side of the mirror, with the light source (not the box) mounted at 63″-66″ above the floor, combined with a recessed LED can centered over the sink. The combination of the downlight and sconce light on either side of your face washes out harsh shadows so that shaving and makeup application is easier.
For maximum lighting, I prefer a sconce with two bulbs. Below I’ve rounded up some stylish vanity sconces that each have two bulbs and fit in narrow spaces on either side of a mirror.
LED tape light under the vanity (floating) or installed along the vanity toe kick can illuminate the floor and be used as a nightlight. In the shower, make sure you have at least one wet location recessed can but two cans might be necessary for an extra large shower. Additional recessed cans or ceiling lights may be necessary depending on the size of the room.
Install dimmer switches on all lights so that you can the option to adjust the level of lighting depending on the time of day or desired mood. Personally, I prefer dimmer lights when I first wake up in the morning and right before bed. Dimmers allow for flexibility in lighting levels depending on the needs and preferences of the person using the room.
Do I need to have a bathtub in my bathroom?
If you don’t have room to create a large shower with all of the features I described unless you eliminate the tub, then get rid of the tub. If you do have room for a tub, then consider a model that is shallower to reduce the perils of stepping over the side and keep the thickness of the side as narrow as possible. If you absolutely must have a tub and do plan to use it for as long as possible, then you may want to consider investing in a walk-in version.
When does Aging in Place become less important for a bathroom remodel?
This is a very good question. I think there are a couple circumstances in which it would be less important to consider Aging in Place for a bathroom remodel.
First, if your primary suite is on the second floor of your home, then it’s less likely you’ll remain in your home if mobility becomes a serious issue. You may want to consider creating a more accessible bathroom and bedroom suite on your main level instead.
Second, if you are in your sixties but planning to move within the next five to ten years, then it sounds like your remodel might be driven more by resale considerations than your personal preferences. But, it’s never a bad idea to use Aging in Place or Living in Place principles whenever possible.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, if you thoughtfully approach your bathroom remodel from a Universal Design perspective, then it probably will not affect the aesthetics of the design. You can still achieve a beautiful new bathroom that can serve you for many years to come.
I believe it’s possible to consider Universal Design in a bathroom remodel project given each client’s particular situation to create a flexible space that adapts to their changing needs as they age while making it beautiful and meeting their aesthetic vision.
When executed thoughtfully, many people wouldn’t even realize that a space incorporates Universal Design principles. The whole point of Universal Design, in my opinion, is to minimize the differences in our physical abilities, not to call attention to them.
I hope you found this post on remodeling your bathroom for Aging in Place helpful. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions on how you can incorporate these ideas into your bathroom remodeling project. And, check out my post on the most common bathroom remodeling mistakes I see people making all the time.