We've read (and written) plenty of stories that treat the bathroom as a grand escape from the stress of everyday life. So well has this concept been marketed that what might have been eye-popping opulence just 10 years ago is downright practical for many of us today.

But past a certain point in our lifetime, the bathroom can turn into a source of stress, rather than an escape from it.

Contractor John Lovelace saw this first-hand when a family friend became bound to a wheelchair. All of a sudden, a trip to the bathroom became a major ordeal.

His friends's experience motivated Lovelace to open a remodeling showroom two years ago that caters, in part, to a growing market that must make their bathrooms safer rooms.

"We'd get calls from people looking for accessible plumbing products," says Lovelace, who along with brother Mike runs Lovelace Plumbing Co., Decatur, Ala. "People simply wanted to see these products first-hand, and couldn't find much information anywhere, no matter how hard they tried."

For most, a safe bathroom becomes a high priority in our seniors years. Our June 2000 cover story, for example, "The Most Dangerous Room In The House," summarized Harvard University research that concluded no more than half the country's senior citizens with disabilities had the home modifications they explicitly said they required to live independently.

While the research covered all aspects of home safety, certainly we weren't off the mark by labeling the bathroom such a dangerous place.

"Many disabled elderly people live in homes that become more difficult to navigate or even impede daily activities as they become more infirm," the research stated. "Indeed, many of the disabilities elderly people experience affect their mobility and dexterity, leading to direct implications for how homes serving this population should be designed."

Or, we would add, should be remodeled, too. By any account, making bathrooms safer for older people is a huge market now, and will only get bigger. In many cases, an accessible, safe bathroom can be the difference between independent living and moving to a retirement home. (For more on aging trends, see our sidebar, "The New Age Of Old Age.")

Other Reasons

Lovelace had other reasons besides a handicapped friend for beginning to cater to this crowd. His grandfather and father started Lovelace Plumbing 35 years ago. Originally, the two did residential repair and some new construction. John's father eventually built up a sizable new construction business. In 1992, however, after a downturn in that market, the brothers decided to concentrate on residential, commercial and industrial service.

"Entering the service business opened up the doors to remodeling," Lovelace says. At the time, commercial/industrial accounts were retrofitting bathroom facilities per new ADA regulations.

"It seemed only natural that our service customers turned to us when they had remodeling needs, and the accessible market, residential or otherwise, seemed like a good niche to build," Lovelace adds.

By 1999, Lovelace decided to separate the company's remodeling business. At the same time, the brothers also had invested in a Re-Bath franchise, which they felt would work for all types of general remodeling.

As such, the showroom has more than just accessible product displays. Plenty of other displays highlight more routine bathroom remodeling jobs. The showroom is staffed by 16-year employee Cecilia Chenault eight hours a day, who walks customers through the remodeling process. Two other employees help make the sales.

While Lovelace is more than glad to take any remodeling business, he does plan to expand the accessible product displays. And not just for the reasons you may think. Older Americans may immediately come to mind, and it's a demographic worth counting on. But Lovelace has discovered plenty of other people appreciate accessible products, regardless of age.

"Some customers think of accessible fixtures as a more comfortable form of luxury plumbing product," Lovelace explains. "Case in point, take an accessible toilet that's 3 inches higher than a regular toilet. People with low back pain or knee trouble could really benefit from having this fixture in their homes."

Even tall customers, Lovelace says, might opt for at least one 17-inch high toilet in their homes. In other residential remodeling jobs, Lovelace has raised bathroom vanities up to kitchen-counter height.

But he knows enough to be careful about how he describes this type of work. "Nobody's going to want a handicapped toilet," he adds. "So call it a comfort-height toilet and you have one happy customer."

The New Age Of Old Age

As of 1999, the age breakdown of the United States looks like a bowling pin on steroids. The bulge in the middle is composed of the Baby Boomers, the 77 million people born between 1946 and 1964. The relatively narrow base represents the Baby Bust, those born since the late-1960s. Each year, the U.S. population gets older, primarily because of the sheer number of aging Baby Boomers, but also because of low fertility rates and annual increases in life expectancy.

Over the next three decades, age breakdowns will take on more the shape of a fire hydrant. Most Baby Boomers will reach retirement age, causing rapid growth in the population over age 65. Currently, about 12 percent of the U.S. population is aged 65 and older. In another 35 years, the elderly population should double. The Census Bureau anticipates that 62 million people, or almost one in five Americans, will be aged 65 and older by 2025. By 2045, that age bracket will reach 77 million.

What's more, the elderly population is not only growing rapidly, it's also getting older. The oldest of the old, aged 85 and older, are increasing at a faster rate than the total elderly population. By 2045, the oldest of the old will represent one in five Americans.

Independent Streak

While the Harvard study we used in our June 2000 cover story, "The Most Dangerous Room In The House," focused on elderly Americans already classified as disabled, another recent study further underscores how much the subject of home safety - and continuing to live independently at home - is on every body's minds, regardless of the conditions of those bodies.

According to a survey released last summer by the American Association of Retired Persons, one in four mid-life and older Americans predicted that either they or someone they live with will have difficulty getting around the home within the next five years.

Among the survey's other key findings were the following:

    More than one-fourth of respondents (27 percent) expressed concerns that they would find it difficult to provide care for an older parent or relative in the home; would have problems using bathtubs (29 percent) or would be forced into a nursing home because of trouble getting around in their own homes (31 percent).

    Eighty-five percent of those polled had already made simple safety modifications to their homes, such as placing nonskid strips in bathtubs.

    The reasons most often cited by respondents for not making home modifications were the inability to make the changes themselves (37 percent), and not being able to afford the modifications (37 percent).

    Another 28 percent said they were "very" or "somewhat" concerned about finding reliable contractors to help modify their homes.

    More than half of the respondents expressed interest in receiving more information about how to stay in their own homes as they get older, and 28 percent said they were interested in information about types of home modifications.