5 Surprising Ways to Make a Bathroom Safer

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How ironic: The bathroom is the room for personal hygiene and, therefore, promotes good health. But along with the kitchen, it's the most dangerous room in the house. The top causes of bathroom accidents (some 200,000 a year): slips, falls, and scaldings.

Find out five safety basics -- and where people often go wrong.

1. Get a grip -- but not just any grip.

Installing grab bars next to the toilet and near or in the bathtub and shower is an easy and relatively inexpensive way to give anyone added support.

But avoid this common mistake: Assuming that any visible bar is a good grab bar.

A slipping adult who reaches for a bar on the wall is going to exert a lot of body weight on that bar. If it's poorly anchored to the wall -- as are many bars intended only to hold the weight of towels -- the person will continue to fall and possibly injure an arm, too. The grab bars should be solidly connected to the structure of the walls (and they can double as towel bars). Skip diagonally placed grab bars because if the grabber's hand slips, a fall is more likely.

2. Simplify the shower/tub entry.

Many new homes feature walk-in shower areas that don't require climbing into a tub, and/or sunken tubs that can be stepped down into, more like entering a swimming pool. Both of these innovations eliminate that precarious wobble over the rim of a tub.

But avoid this common mistake: Overdoing the fanciness of the design so that there are steps leading up to a shower or bath area. Steps are a slipping hazard. A level platform area around the shower or tub is better. It's also wise to avoid a curb at the point of the walk-in entrance. That way you prevent accidental trips and, if necessary, the design can accommodate a wheelchair.

More surprising ways to make a bathroom safer

3. Don't lock the door.

We associate the bathroom with privacy -- but it can come at a price. In the event of an accident such as a fall or a medical crisis, you or a loved one might not be able to exit the bathroom on your own. If the door is locked, help can't get in, either -- and might not realize you're in trouble. This problem can happen to anyone of any age; older adults, who have more chronic illnesses and more problems with balance, are especially vulnerable.

But avoid this common mistake: Don't overlook safety regarding the door to the shower. While shower doors don't lock, they can be blocked if the person in the shower collapses and it's a door that opens in to the shower, as opposed to out into the room. Shower doors should always open out to the room.

4. Lower the temperature for vulnerable skin.

A hot shower is a luxury -- but on younger and older bodies with thinner skin, hot water can become much too hot very quickly. Often a temperature setting has been the same for years; be sure to revisit it if there's a new family member in the house or if you notice yourself turning the lever well away from the hottest end of the hot-to-cold spectrum. Below 120 degrees is a safer setting. The National Kitchen and Bath Builders Association recommends installing pressure-balanced and temperature-controlled valves in the bath and shower to help prevent scalding.

But avoid this common mistake: Don't ignore what the temperature controls look like. Knob-style fixtures add to the scalding danger. Better: lever-style fixtures. Often accidents occur because users can't manage to turn off the water if they lack a strong grip.

5. Right-size the commode

Older adults often begin to have mobility issues relating to arthritis and other conditions, or problems with hips, knees, or back. Stooping low to sit on many standard-model 15- to 17-inch commodes can be a challenge. Two simple fixes are molded plastic seats that raise the seat as many as four inches, or adjustable seats that attach to an existing seat. You can also have a plumber install a new model or one that's hung from the wall at the appropriate height.

But avoid this common mistake: Know that a tall toilet isn't right for everyone just because of age or condition. A small woman, for example, may feel insecure sitting on one where her feet barely touch the ground. That presents a falling hazard. Also, if you use an adjustable seat, be sure to attach it securely. One that slips can lead to a dangerous fall.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio