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Designing senior-friendly washrooms

Did you know that, in the UK, falls are the most common cause of injury-related deaths among people aged 75 and above?

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) notes that almost three-quarters of the falls among the 65-and-above group end up in arm, leg or shoulder injuries. Among older women, one in every five falls result in a fracture that requires hospital treatment. Among older men, falling from a ladder whilst doing home maintenance work is also common.  Although the vast majority are not serious injuries, falling can expose the elderly to other risks such as hypothermia and pressure sores. 

This can happen anywhere but according to the National Health Service (NHS), it is more likely to happen in areas such as the kitchen or bathroom, especially when the floors are wet or recently polished. 

For older people, washrooms and toilets are among the most critical spaces at home or in public. The thought process behind the design dictates accessibility, safety, and mobility. 

Public toilets and the elderly

In public spaces, toilet access is crucial, not just for obvious sanitation and hygiene purposes, but also for encouraging the elderly to overcome their social anxieties. Without access to proper facilities, older people can feel afraid of leaving their homes. This, in turn, creates an “invisible disability” and can cause social isolation and distress. “Age-friendly” toilets make cities more accessible. 

When it comes to our senior citizens, tech-savvy is not always age-friendly. One study found that a technological approach does not always benefit the elderly when it comes to toilet provision in public spaces. Those with cognitive impairments may end up getting more confused and discouraged. This presumes that older people are not always with a caregiver when outside the home. The research concludes that there is no one-size-fit-all solution to designing age-friendly toilet solutions. The first step, really, is research on how it is being used. This can prevent costly and unnecessary overhauls down the line. 

In the UK, the closure of public toilets has had a “serious impact” on the wellbeing of affected residents. Whilst understandable, given the current health crisis, the situation has created a “secondary public health risk.” Some people have opted to relieve themselves in the open, polluting parks and sand dunes with human excrement. People who need to be out resort to drastic measures like deliberately dehydrating themselves to avoid having to pee. And even as they start to reopen, the current quality of the facilities in many areas leave much to be desired. 

There have been, however, consolidated efforts to improve this experience with initiatives like the Changing Places campaign. A Changing Places toilet is one fitted with additional equipment to address the needs of people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. It is different from a standard accessible toilet. This type of facility can also be used by the elderly.

Designing a safe and accessible washroom for senior users

Thinking about refurbishing? Here are some elderly-friendly washroom and toilet design ideas you can start with at home. 

  • Grab bars and handrails. This is an easy and cost-effective way to improve safety and accessibility in the washroom. Handrails make it easy for the elderly user, and his or her caregiver, to move around. It allows the person to shift their weight and move into different positions safely. This is important in a washroom because there is always a possibility that the floor may be wet and slippery. 

Grab bars should be installed strategically around the washroom. There should be one next to the toilet. There should also be one each on both sides of the tub. They should be within range whether standing or sitting. Ideally, there should be bars in all the walls of the shower. Shower controls should be near the grab bars. 

  • Non-slip mats and rugs. Aside from choosing the non-slip option for your washroom floor material, rugs and mats provide another layer of support and protection. This is a quick and easy fix that requires no professional help. You can place non-slip mats in the shower and the rug, outside or anywhere else in the toilet that you feel may be a danger spot. Invest in thicker rugs for cushion. This is to support elderly caregivers who often have to kneel whilst bathing or assisting.
  • Toilet height. Raised toilet seats minimise the effort required to bend and sit. The fastest way to do this is to install a thick toilet seat. Or you can replace it and customise the height. 
  • Lever faucets. Lever faucets are easier to use because they eliminate the need for twisting and turning which can be challenging for some elderly folks.
  • Zero-threshold or curbless shower. The idea is that you can easily slide a wheelchair or walker into the shower. Doors are optional since the floor will be constructed to tilt down the drain. You can also have trench drains within the perimeter to make sure the water stays in. Walk-in baths are popular in facilities often used by the elderly like hospitals or aged care. As the name implies, there is no need to climb over, which is hazardous for seniors. It can be customised so that the tub controls are within reach. You can also opt for a portable bath chair or a built-in seat. 
  • Handheld shower. This minimises the need to stand up while bathing. And it also enables seniors to bathe conveniently on their own. You can also install mixing valves that let you limit water temperature and protect users from scalding. 
  • Lighting. It is important to ensure that the washroom is sufficiently lit. You can add vanity lighting and wall washers to help senior users navigate the room easily. 
  • Colour. Use contrasting colours for the walls and the sanitary ware. This allows people with reduced visual capacity to better distinguish the different parts of the room. 
  • Storage. Instead of cupboards, opt for wall mounted and exposed storage units that are easier to reach and require no extra bending or stretching. 
  • Alert system. In case of an emergency, a senior user should be able to alert other people, whether at home or in a shared use facility. Emergency buttons should be accessible near the floor, so the person can still use it if they fall and are unable to get back up. 

Washroom and toilet upgrades are always a good investment because the quality of experience in these facilities has a major impact on overall health and safety. And remember: When in doubt, always consult with a professional.