Many user-friendly bathroom options are available for the elderly.

Photo credit: Delta Faucet Co.

This is the time of year for family and the holidays. It also reminds us we are getting older. Another year will pass us by. As we get older, our demands on plumbing systems change.

One of the growing trends of the elderly is something called “aging in place.” Rather than moving to Florida, Arizona or some other area, many elderly people are choosing to remain where they are. Why move when you have a house paid for and friends living in the community?

What this means is existing homes may have to be adjusted and modified as owners age. Some elderly people become confined to a wheelchair or need the use of a walker to get around.  Rather than climbing stairs, it is easier to stay on a single floor in your own home.

This has resulted in a growing plumbing trend where plumbing systems need to be modified as owners become less mobile. All major manufacturers now offer showers and bathtubs for the elderly. Fixtures, such as water closets and lavatories, now can be placed anywhere in a home.

The first thing that may come to mind is handicapped fixtures. Handicapped fixtures are required to meet ANSI/ICC A117.1. There are specific requirements for spacing, size, grab bars and access. The elderly like some of these features, but not all of them.

Shower assistance

Bathtubs become difficult to use by some elderly folks, especially those having difficulty getting around without assistance. The preference is a shower with an enclosed seat. If confined to a wheelchair, a no-threshold shower is preferred. This allows the elderly to wheel into the shower compartment.

A shower valve with a hand-held showerhead is the fixture typically selected, which creates ease of use for the elderly end-user.

This sounds similar to a handicapped shower, with the exception of grab bars. Many of the elderly do not like the standard grab bars associated with handicapped fixtures. These smooth, stainless-steel grab bars are not user-friendly. They are designed so the user’s hand can slide along the grab bar. The elderly don’t want to slide their hands along the grab bar; they want to hold on to it for support.

Another generation of grab bars are what I call graspable grab bars. These grab bars are a little smaller in diameter. They also have a surface that allows your hand to grab and not move. One of my favorite graspable grab bars is a contoured grab bar shaped to provide a very firm grip.

Another feature that does not have to follow the handicapped provisions is the seat for a shower. Seats in handicapped showers are not easy to fold up and down. They include a strong support connection not needed by the elderly.

Some of the available seats for an elderly shower have legs that drop to the floor. These are not permitted for handicapped showers since a shower leg cannot move when a perpendicular force is applied to the leg. The elderly really don’t care about that.

Two nice shower features are offered by some manufacturers. One is a pumped-waste shower. The shower can be installed anywhere with the waste line pumped to an available drainage line. Since it is a pumped-waste shower, there is no vent required for the fixture. You don’t have to worry about pitch or a vent.

The other is a shower base that fits perfectly into the space of a bathtub. I’m a big fan of this idea. You can remove a bathtub and install a no-threshold shower, which makes remodeling quite easy.

Some of the available shower bases allow you to tile over the base. The shower base still serves as the floor, having been tested for a 300-pound concentrated load.

For wheelchair-accessible shower enclosures, half walls are available to close off the area. These glass walls extend only part way up the wall. When using a hand-held shower, you don’t need a full-height glass enclosure.

Toilet talk

When it comes to water closets, the elderly like some form of support. Some models have grab bars that swing down on either side of the water closet. These grab bars are not approved for handicapped water closets, but they work just fine for the elderly.

If the elderly are confined to a single story in the home because of restricted mobility, a macerating toilet system can be installed anywhere.  These toilet systems, which pump waste to an available drain, also allow the connection of a lavatory and/or shower. This removes the concern for needing the pitch necessary to install the fixture.

Code questions

You may be asking how this all plays out with the plumbing code and the plumbing inspector. It’s quite easy. The code already permits handicapped plumbing fixtures. Hence, the installation of a zero-threshold shower is permitted. Thus, the showers are all permitted, as are the other fixtures. Since grab bars are not required, any grab bar can be installed. The handicapped plumbing fixture requirements would not be applicable.

In the next edition of the model plumbing codes you will find language specifically geared toward fixtures for the elderly. No-threshold showers will be listed as acceptable for any installation. Technically, they already are.

I would encourage you to consider getting into the business of converting homes for the aging-in-place market. Besides being a business opportunity, it also provides your community with a service to its senior citizens.

As you gather for the holidays with the elderly members of your family, remember we have an obligation to take care of them with usable plumbing fixtures.

Have a very Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah and a prosperous New Year.