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How to Remodel Your Bathroom for Now and the Future

With universal design, your bathroom will be more accessible to everyone

You’re planning a bathroom remodel. Exciting! It’s time to talk about flooring and finishes, light fixtures and storage space. Oh, yeah, and walkers, slips and broken hips! Wait. What?!

We know, we know, that’s not you. It may never be you. But the truth is: Thinking about some of the challenges of aging as you remodel will actually make your house more accessible to everyone in your life, whether it’s your adult daughter trying to take a shower while her baby is conked out in the stroller, a toddling grandchild who won’t sit still in the tub, a spouse recovering from knee surgery or an elderly parent with failing vision.

Planning ahead and anticipating the changing needs of your family will prevent your bathroom from looking institutional down the road.

— Amy Levner, AARP

“Most of us find it difficult to plan ahead,” says gerontologist Jodi Olshevski, executive director for the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence. “And some of us have a certain aversion to growing older.”

But planning ahead and anticipating the changing needs of your family is the key to preventing your bathroom from looking institutional down the road, says Amy Levner, manager of Housing and Livable Communities for AARP. “Universal design done well is invisible, and it looks a lot better than a quick fix,”  she adds.(To see what Levner’s talking about, check out the video at aarp.org/homefit.)

If, for example, you or a family member suddenly suffers an injury or illness, Levner says, you can’t instantly install a sleek grab bar that doubles as a towel rack. Or a backlit faucet. Or fold-down teak seats in the shower. Instead, you’ll be forced to make accommodations of the nursing-home-chic variety. Often in white or beige plastic. Not pretty.

On the other hand, if you approach your remodel thoughtfully using the principles of universal design now, you’ll have all the accommodations you or a loved one might need one day already in place — in a style that suits your taste. In the meantime, activities like shaving in the shower and bathing a baby will be easier.

“There’s really no downside,” Olshevski says. You just need to think a little differently as you turn your bathroom into the universally accessible oasis of your dreams.

What to Think About

Flooring. Look for flooring that is slip-resistant, even-surfaced, low-glare, durable and easy to maintain. “The bathroom is a really dangerous room because it’s slippery when wet,” Levner says, “but you can select tiles that are naturally slip-proof.”

Hallways and doorways. To accommodate walkers, strollers or a wheelchair, widen hallways and doorways to at least 32 inches — 36 inches is ideal, says Olshevski. And eliminate thresholds, which are an unnecessary obstacle.

Doorknobs. Replace knobs with levered handles, which are easier for both little hands and arthritic ones to manipulate.

Lighting. Most people don’t think much about lighting in the bathroom, Olshevski says, but good lighting is crucial not only for good design but also for preventing slips and scalds. In addition to letting in as much natural light as possible, she suggests multiple sources of lighting and points out the importance of lighting over the bathtub and shower. Of course, don’t forget a nightlight for those midnight bathroom trips.

Light switches. Install backlit rocker switches instead of standard switches. They are easier to find in the dark, and you can flip them with your elbow or shoulder if your hands are full.

Faucets. Choose single-lever faucets — or touchless sensor faucets — which are easier to manipulate and provide better water-temperature control.

Toilet. Comfort-height toilets are 17 to 19 inches high compared to the standard 14 to 16 inches. You’ll just need to provide a stepping stool for little ones.

Vanity and medicine cabinet. Not only are pedestal sinks in fashion, they are more accessible to those with wheelchairs and walkers than enclosed vanities, Olshevski says, because they provide clearance under the sink. And a well-lit medicine cabinet makes reading prescription bottles and finding toiletries easier.

Shower and tub. “We would suggest a walk-in shower with a hand-held shower hose,” Olshevski says. “They are designed so the water doesn’t get on the floor, and you can install a seat, which is very practical if you’re shaving.” Walk-in bathtubs, which are accessible through a door and have built-in seating, are another option.

Grab bars. Perhaps the most important feature for an accessible, safe bathroom is a grab bar. When you’re remodeling, be sure to have the walls reinforced so you can install a grab bar in the tub or shower whenever you’re ready without having to rip up the walls again, Levner says. But really there’s no need to delay, since so many grab bars double as stylish towel racks.

The Fun Part: Shopping Around

Once you’ve decided to embrace universal design in the bathroom, the next step is finding products that match your style. Architects, contractors and designers familiar with universal design can lead you to products that are right for you.

Most architects are up to speed on universal design, Levner says. Locating designers and contractors might take a little sleuthing. She recommends looking for certified Aging in Place contractors and contacting your local chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) for designer recommendations.

Half the fun is doing research on your own. And maybe creating a Pinterest board of your favorite things.

Melinda Avila-Torio, a designer with THW, an architecture firm that specializes in building senior living facilities, recommends checking out the following for inspiration:

“We know from research that most people want to stay in their home as they age,” Olshevski says. Universal design makes that possible. And if you do the remodel right, your guests won’t want to leave either.

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