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Posted: April 26, 2008

Keeping Loved Ones Independent

Helping Mom and Dad Navigate the Bathroom

Editor's Note: Safety and mobility go hand in hand in determining whether an elderly person can continue to live independently - the goal of almost every senior. But dangers lurk, and caregivers need to be alert to ways to protect loved ones along the way. In this feature series, Solutions for Keeping Loved Ones Independent, we outline what caregivers need to know to help keep their loved ones safe and independent.

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For many caregivers, trying to understand why their loved one is reluctant to bathe becomes a constant source of frustration and mystery. And while in some cases the answer may stem from mental deterioration or depression, in many more cases it may actually be fear and discomfort that deters them.

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Actually, our elderly's fears are well-grounded because the bathroom can be a dangerous place, with its cold, hard, wet and slippery surfaces. It makes sense, then, that eliminating the fear-inducing obstacles your loved ones face every time they enter the bathroom may also eliminate much of their resistance to bathing.

Making the Bathroom Safe

The first step in making our parent's bathroom more elderly-friendly is to identify the most common hazards and present solutions that minimize the risks that may interfere with a loved one's ability to navigate safely in one of the most essential rooms in the house.

Hazard: Rims of baths and showers are difficult to step over. Loved ones must attempt to balance while transferring, often using unstable supports such as towel bars or faucets to steady themselves.

Solutions: One good solution is a transfer bench, which allows your loved one to transition in a seated position from outside the tub to the inside. Options range from basic designs that sell for less than $200, to more advanced designs that include seats that slide and swivel and sell for up to $500. Benches can be found at local medical supply stores or from online vendors, including www.medicalproductsdirect.com, www.spinlife.com and www.medicalsupply4U.com.

In addition, walk-in and wheel-in showers and tubs completely eliminate the problem of stepping over the bathtub rim. They are excellent but more-costly solutions, with showers priced from $1,200 and tubs priced from around $5,000.

For those who prefer to keep their existing bathtub, door inserts can be installed, allowing the tub to be adapted for walk-in accessibility. You can view a variety of accessible showers and tubs online at www.premier-bathrooms.com, www.safetybath.com and www.accessible-walk-in-bathtubs.com.

Hazard: Wet, slippery bathroom surfaces increase the risk of falling.

Solutions: Purchase non-skid patches that glue permanently to the floor of the shower or tub. Removable non-skid mats are less desirable, because they tend to loosen over time and can slip underfoot. Non-skid patches are sold at hardware and bath supply stores.

Alternatively, look for a local company that specializes in refinishing tubs, and see if they can refinish your loved one's tub with a non-slip surface.

Outside the tub, avoid using throw rugs that can slide when stepped on. A better solution is wall-to-wall carpeting, or the same kind of non-skid surface that is used in tubs.

Hazard: Holding onto the bathroom door, sink, faucet or a walker while transferring to or from the toilet or the tub or shower promotes falling.

Solutions: Install grab bars wherever transferring or extra safety is needed. Make sure they are securely anchored into wall studs. Bars come in a variety of lengths and shapes, and can be mounted horizontally, vertically and diagonally. Some are even portable, able to be moved or adjusted as the need dictates. Grab bars with ridged and rough surfaces allow for better gripping and can be found at hardware and home supply stores, with prices starting around $15. Prices can rise sharply, depending on design preferences.

Hazard: Standing while bathing makes balance tricky and often unsafe.

Solutions: A shower or bath seat allows your loved one to sit comfortably and safely while bathing. Add strategically placed grab bars and a hand-held shower head, and bathing becomes much easier. A variety of bathing products, such as bath mitts and long handled scrubbers with removable washcloth heads will allow your loved one to cleanse hard-to-reach areas without having to stand. Local or online bath supply and medical supply stores are sources for bath seats and bathing products.

Hazard: Low toilet seats make transferring difficult.

Solutions: Medical supply stores sell raised and swivel toilet seats that make toilet transferring much easier. Securely fix grab bars on the wall so your loved can use them to assist with rising and to steady themselves after toileting.

Comfort and Convenience in the Bath

Paying attention to minor changes or additions that make the bathroom more comfortable will also reduce the dread that bathing may hold for your loved one. Here are some small changes that can make a big difference:

Many aspects of typical home design can become insurmountable obstacles for our elderly loved ones to navigate. To them, stepping over the rim of a tub may seem like an Olympic feat. But we can eliminate many of these obstacles by making changes that will keep them safer in the bathroom, encourage them to bathe, and prolong and enhance their independence.

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Melissa A. Goodwin is a freelance writer and photographer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has years of experience working with volunteer caregiving programs that help seniors and family caregivers. She can be reached at meesarj@msn.com.

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