The "age in place" market opens up to contractors.

Homes become increasingly difficult to navigate as homeowners age. And no where else is that more apparent than in the bathroom. With wet tile and porcelain, slippery soap messes and a roomful of hard, unforgiving surfaces, the bathroom has been called the most dangerous room in the house.

"Doomsday" statistics inform us that every five seconds, someone is injured in a household accident, and bathrooms can be even more hazardous to the elderly and those with physical impairments. But the word "accident" implies a lack of control over the situation, and bathroom accidents are highly preventable.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), there were more than 31 million people aged 65 or older in the United States in 1994. It is estimated the number of elderly will nearly double by the year 2030, with more than half classified as disabled. For the plumbing industry, it means paying closer attention to fixture function and accessory accessibility.

So far, little research has been completed on whether seniors can continue to access the important parts of their homes safely and completely. Are homes equipped with features that serve both current and future health needs? The emerging trend of the mature market wishing to "age in place" will bring on quality and suitable housing questions with increasing urgency. With homeowners determined to not be "warehoused" in nursing homes or assisted-living complexes, bathrooms will need to be outfitted with modifications for comfort, efficiency and accessibility.

In September, the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University completed research based on data from the 1995 American Housing Survey. The study, "The Housing Modifications for Disabled Elderly Households," explores the types and prevalence of home modifications for U.S. households with elderly individuals. Its findings can be used toward better understanding the housing demands of this surging part of the population.

Aging Accessibility

Of the houses with elderly disabled occupants, the study found that 75 percent have at least one home modification. But only half reported having modifications they explicitly state they need. SIPP defines people as disabled if they:

  • Use a wheelchair, or have long-term use of a cane, crutches or walker;

  • Have difficulty performing one or more functional activities, activities of daily living or instrumental activities of daily living.

The limitations that are most frequent among the elderly are those activities that demand physical strength and agility. Of the approximately 5 million households surveyed with disabled elderly people, the study found that 1.1 million individuals have trouble reaching bathroom facilities, and 1.8 million reported trouble with bathing and getting in and out of a tub or shower.

Extra handrails or grab bars appear most often in homes with elderly occupants. Almost 1.5 million homes were discovered by the study to have those items installed. But about 95,000 households expressed a need for modified sink faucets or cabinets; almost 74 percent did not have them.

Some of the modifications that are most frequently cited as needed but absent are hardware-related and relatively easy to install - such as lever-style faucets, easy-touch controls and pull-out cabinets and drawers. The study states that it is possible that awareness of the utility of certain modifications is higher than for others. Some fixtures are simply not considered. These findings suggest that half or more of households with mobility-impaired elderly members do not have any of the modifications that the study states would be either necessary or highly useful.

Accessible Style

In addition to comfort and safety, homeowners want aids that are more discreet after installation. Many households may try to avoid visible indications of disabilities, or any structural additions that may elicit the feel of institutional settings. Items such as push-bar sinks and modified cabinets and toilets may have greater institutional connotations than other modifications.

"Gerber tries to create and design accessible fixtures on a residential-style level, to make them more decorative," says Ron Grabski, Vice President of Market Development for Gerber Plumbing Fixtures. "Elongated toilet seats with the added height for accessibility are not just for commercial use anymore, and are safer and more convenient even for elderly individuals who are not necessarily labeled disabled."

By paying closer attention to the materials being used, colors schemes of the room as a whole, and texture of the fixtures, plumbing contractors can create not only an accessible bathroom, but one that is inclusive and inviting without the stamp of "disability."

Improving the quality of life for those aging at home can be as simple as installing additional features to the bathroom. Some "high-end" fixtures and trends that assist the elderly include providing a separate space for both shower and bath. This offers homeowners a "bathing experience," rather than a daily chore. Walk-in showers in natural stone supports the clean-as-you-go concept, and (with grab bars in place) promotes easy-access for all users. Bidet toilet seats, though not as prevalent in American markets as in European or Eastern markets, can offer a hydrocleansing for individuals unable to wash daily.

According to Bemis Mfg. Co., a leading manufacturer of plastic plumbing products and toilet seats, the soothing, warm water wash can be used to cleanse after surgery, cope with irritable bowl syndrome, contend with side effects from medications, and promote overall personal hygiene. With all of these features now offered in a single toilet seat, it eliminates the need for a separate unit, which could cut into precious walking space. Installing easy-touch controls for shower, faucet and toilet also do not impede cleansing for an individual with mobility limitations.

Steam showers, massaging showerheads, whirlpool baths and rain baths all give bathroom users a "sybaritic," home-spa feeling without leaving the comfort of their homes. They promote good skin health and ease the aches and pains of daily activities. Again, these are items that can be used by individuals of all abilities - who wants to strain their back at any age?

With the aging population on the rise, a whole new market of mature homeowners with money to spend has opened up for plumbing contractors. Keeping up to date with accessible and safe alternatives to institutional living can show your clients you care about their health and comfort. And with individual accessible features inundating supply shelves, you don't have to suggest a complete bathroom remodel - a simple change to a lever-style faucet may do the trick.