This post was originally published on 9/1/18 and updated on 1/17/20 to reflect the most current terminology in accessible design.
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No one likes to talk about getting old, or even older. I’ve learned that many of my clients do not want to be reminded of their mortality. But, as their interior designer, I feel like it’s my job to raise the issue, especially in the case of a bathroom remodel for seniors.
If you are in your sixties and planning a major renovation of your primary bathroom, then it is worth thinking about optimizing the new bathroom design for living in place so that you can remain in your home as long as possible. I wouldn’t be serving my clients if I created a bathroom for them that didn’t meet their needs for at least the next 15 to 20 years.
Why should I consider Living in Place when planning my primary bathroom design?
Design for Living 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 Living in Place (or Aging in Place) to my clients, their minds immediately jump to being wheelchair bound, and they kind of freak out. 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.
So how do I implement Universal Design or Living In Place in my bathroom design?
#1 Start at the Entrance
Many older homes have bathrooms with doors that are only 28″ wide. If there is enough room for 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.
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
The best time to install blocking in your walls for grab bars at your toilet and in your shower is during a major remodel. Especially in your shower. If you should need a grab bar later, it will be impossible to install it without blocking, and you don’t want to rip out all that pretty tile you just installed.
You don’t 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.
#3 Optimize Your Shower
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.
Discuss installing a curbless 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 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 door style is a perfect solution rather than a swinging glass door.
Include a bench that is at least 18″ deep and 18″ high. I would also make it 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!
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 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.
Add a separate hand shower on an adjustable bar close to the bench. I always specify a hand shower for cleaning anyway.
Use an anti-slip mosaic tile for the shower floor. 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.
Finally, 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.
#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 look tiles are actually perfect for a Universal Design bathroom because many of them are textured and only 6″ wide. Avoid high-contrast patterned mosaics which can seem to vibrate.
#5 Float the 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 are great for Universal Design and Aging in Place 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. Install a variety of lighting including scones on either side of the mirror, recessed can lights both inside and outside of the shower, and LED strip lighting under the floating vanity or in the toe kick of a regular vanity.
What about the bathtub?
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 Living 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 Living 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 Universal Design 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 Living 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.