Walk-in tubs for aging parents -- and for peace of mind

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | October 6, 2016

If you are worried about your parents falling as they grow older, your fears are warranted. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year one third of adults 65 years and older falls. Falling is the leading cause of injuries for older adults, and sometimes those injuries prove fatal. More often they result in broken bones, like hip fractures; lacerations; and even severe head trauma. Even if your parents aren't injured, once they have fallen, older adults may become fearful that it will happen again. Then they begin to limit their mobility, which in turn compromises their muscle strength and balance, which makes them more, not less, vulnerable to falling again.

Keeping parents safe but independent

While it is important to recognize a parent's limitations to prevent accident and injury, it is equally as important to appreciate what they can do for themselves. Growing older may take its toll psychologically, as well as physically, on your parents. The more they are able to do for themselves, the longer they feel relevant and stay motivated to participate in life. As time passes, however, you might find that you have to provide them with measures that can keep them safe, such as an alarm device that they wear to call for help, mobility assistance in the form of a cane or walker, medication reminders, grab bars in the bath, a stair lift, or even professional assistance from a home health aide. Some solutions may require remodeling their home -- or yours if they agree to move in with you -- using elements of universal design.

With each of these interventions, understand that your parents might offer resistance, fearing an increased loss of independence and self-worth by admitting that they actually need the help. If you've been asking them to move in with you for your own peace of mind, they may see that as a major sacrifice of their freedom or else an invasion of both their own or your privacy. Whether you decide to ease your worries by helping them stay in their own home with increasing assistance or moving them into yours, bathing at some point might become a challenge for them. If they are fond of soaking in a tub rather than showering, they may have difficulty lifting one leg at a time to get in and out of the bath, and that means they could fall.

Walk-in bathtubs for aging parents

Like walk-in showers, walk-in tubs make entering and exiting the bathtub no more difficult than getting around any other part of the home. The ingenious design of these tubs provides access through a door that seals to keep the water in. The bather steps over a threshold typically three or four inches in height (two-inch models are also available) and can stay seated in the tub on a chair-height, built-in bench. The height of walk-in tubs range usually from 37 to 47 inches.

Many standard walk-in bathtubs come with two built-in grab bars, an anti-slip floor and molded seat, anti-scald valve, and a hand-held shower head with flexible hose. Doors usually open inward, but you can get a door that opens outward or one that is mounted on the front of the tub for easier access from a wheel chair or other mobility device. Because you cannot open the door until the water is out, a "rapid-drain" option makes it possible for the water to empty in as little as 80 seconds.

Additional options that have therapeutic appeal to anyone with conditions such as arthritis or any type of chronic pain include the following:

  • heated seat
  • water jets
  • air jets
  • whirlpool

The final price of your walk-in tub will depend on installation costs, add-on options, tub size, and whether or not you have to move the plumbing to accommodate drains and supply lines.

Walk-in bathtubs for small bathrooms

Whether your parents stay in their home or move into yours, making modifications to the house can seem daunting. What if the only bathroom that's convenient for your parent to use is not very big? While walk-in tubs sound like they take up a lot of space -- and the largest models can be up to 60 inches in length -- there are walk-in tubs for small bathrooms, too. They can fit in a guest bathroom or even replace a shower. The smallest are 36 inches long by 32 inches wide.

Remodeling a home for an aging parent can require some ingenuity, but remember why you are doing it and for whom. You might want to enlist the aid of a certified aging in place specialist, a design professional trained to help you and your parents plan and execute necessary modifications to the house that can help keep your parents safe and independent for as long as possible.

Photo credit to Kevin Irby

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.