Bathtubs are a mixed blessing for those of us who wish to age in place. From the time we’re young, soaking in soothing hot water is associated with relaxation, stress reduction and quiet contemplation. There’s nothing like a good soak at the end of the day, as my mother always said. But as our mobility decreases, and we become less and less steady on our feet, the traditional bathtub with its high sides and slippery surfaces may become less user friendly. In fact, it may even become down right dangerous! For those older adults who would like to continue to enjoy a bath even though it has become more challenging to do so, and for those who have been prescribed bathing as a recommended part of a therapy program, selecting a safe, cost-effective and aesthetically pleasing accessible bathtub can seem overwhelming. There are just so many choices. In this article we will look at some basic tips on how to choose the right bathtub for your long-term bathing needs.
First it is important to understand that bathtubs are generally more expensive to install than a shower, and any option that requires the use of a contractor will not be cheap. According to the website homeability.com, accessible tubs may be defined by: the door type (no door, inward, outward, upwards or sideways opening doors); the entry style (walk/step-in, slide-in, lift-in); and whether the user sits or lies down inside. Below are some options to help you to refine your search:
Option 1: A “walk-in” tub: Just as the name implies, a “walk-in” tub features a side opening that swings either inward or outward and the bather walks into the tub through a very small opening by stepping over a low threshold while the tub is empty. If you are steady on your feet, this tub type reduces the chances of falling as the low threshold eliminates the need to step over the raised tub side of the traditional 30” x 60” bathtub found in so many Canadian homes. To use the tub, the bather sits on a built-in seat, closes the door, and adds hot water. The advantages afforded by this tub-type include the very low entry threshold, the molded raised seating within the tub, and the aesthetic appearance of the finished product. Of the options discussed here, this is the most aesthetically pleasing. However it is also the most expensive as units can cost between $7,000 – $20,000 to install. Why so costly? Because the contractor must remove and discard the old tub, new equipment must be purchased, and installation may require plumbing upgrades, a new tile surround and new flooring. Also consider the renovation hassle as the installation of this type of tub can take from several days to several weeks, leaving you without access to the bathroom during that time.
And then there’s the bathing experience. Bathers must enter the tub when it is empty so that the door may be secured properly. Filling and draining times can take 10 minutes or more (these tubs hold between 40 and 80 gallons of water). This can mean a very cold start and finish to your bath. Bathers are required to sit rather than recline leaving shoulders and chest exposed. And finally, for taller users, closing the door can be difficult as the space within the tub is generally very tight when sitting down.
Option 2: Modifying an existing tub: The “tub cut” alternative is particularly well suited to situations where one or more in the household wish to bathe while others wish to shower. For this option, a contractor cuts a door into the side of an existing bathtub (tub cutters can accommodate any type of tub material from cast iron to plastic) creating a low threshold for entry. The door insert may or may not swing but when sealed allows and the tub to be used as a regular bathtub. This is a much more cost-effective alternative than the walk-in tub (prices for modification start at around $1,500 and work is completed the same day) but the end result is not as aesthetically pleasing. Anyone who visits the home will immediately know that the bathroom has been modified. And many of the same issues that confront the walk-in tub user will also apply with the tub cut. This tub type also presents an additional safety hazard as the bather must raise and lower themselves into the water. Grab bars will need to be installed to ensure safety. The bottom line: the tub cut option is probably best suited for people who prefer to shower.
Option 3: Motorized bath chair: This is by far the most inexpensive, safest and easiest of the three options discussed here. The motorized bath chair is placed inside your existing bathtub. At the push of a button, the seat lowers the bather down into the water and it raises them back up at the end of the bath. There are a wide variety of tub chairs on the market, ranging in price from $200 to $500 or more (Amazon.ca has a good selection). Look for a motorized chair that ensures there is sufficient power to both lower and lift the bather before beginning the bath. Best of all, there is no need for a contractor or for any alternations to made to the bathroom. The chair can be removed and taken with you to a new location or when the time comes to sell the home.
In summary, before buying, do your research. Ask friends who have been through the experience what they have found works best, do a web search to see what others are saying about specific products, and whenever possible, try to use the product first hand before making your investment. For a more comprehensive overview of bathing solutions, including images, visit homeability.com.
Mary Jane Carroll is a professor in the Bachelor of Interior Design program at Sheridan College. She developed a specialized post-diploma program at Sheridan called “Aging
in Place Design Specialist”. Mary Jane was published in “Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments,” and has presented her papers on Universal Design in England and the USA.