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Bathroom Safety Design:
Part I - Fast, Easy Improvements

Quickly Decrease the Risk
of Falls in the Bathroom
By: Mary Lou D'Auray, BA, CID,
and Stacey Matzkevich, MSG, MSW, LCSW

Taking basic precautions, such as installing an emergency call button, can save lives. In addition, it is essential to put some thought into preventing possible falls. Falls in the home account for 80 percent of all deaths in the elderly, and most such falls occur in the bathroom. In her book "Elderdesign," Rosemary Bakker cites U.S. Public Health Service figures confirming that two-thirds of fall-related deaths are preventable. Strategies for preventing falls, as well as other safety tips, are detailed below.

General bathroom design
  • Remove any loose rugs and bathmats. Or, make certain bathmats have slip-resistant backing.

  • Place towel racks close to sink to prevent water from dripping on the floor.

  • Make sure frequently used items are well organized and easily accessible.

  • Create a 21-inch clear walkway space in front of the sink. By eliminating scatter rugs, open cabinet doors, and other obstacles, space is created for elderly people using walkers or wheelchairs to have unobstructed access to the sink.

  • Hang a magnifying glass on a hook near the sink so prescriptions can easily and accurately be read.

  • Maintain a warm bathroom. This may necessitate installing a ceiling-mounted heat lamp. Seniors, especially those with certain medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, may prefer very warm spaces after showering or bathing.

Emergency management
  • Install an emergency pull cord or call button, preferably near the bathtub. The senior can also wear an emergency call button in case they fall when they are alone and need help.

  • Put a telephone in an easy-to-reach spot. This will make it easy to call for help if necessary, and keep a senior from abandoning caution to rush out of the bathroom to answer the phone. A cordless phone with a wall-mounted rack is a good option.

  • Install a fire alarm with both an udio and visual warning mechanism.

  • Install a special emergency release lock, or place a key just outside the door so there is access in an emergency even if the door is locked.

Lighting and electrical
  • Install a night light. Fumbling in the dark can be dangerous. Look for night lights that turn on automatically when it becomes dark, or when they detect movement.

  • Have an easy-to-use flashlight in the bathroom in case of a power outage, or to help if a senior drops something into a dark corner.

  • Color contrast the towels and light switches. This makes them easier for aging eyes to see.

  • Make sure electrical appliances such as hair dryers, electric rollers or razors are a safe distance from any water source.

Safety-oriented design is corrective and preventative, said Roberta Null, author of "Universal Design." This means that the effort caregivers put into designing a safe bathroom can make a senior feel better today and prevent problems later.