Bathroom Work Tops Senior Home Makeover Needs

Here are things to do so that trip to the bathroom does not become a trip to the cleaners.

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Making bathrooms more friendly to older homeowners tops the list of important projects to help people remain in their homes as they age. Angie's List has more than a million consumers in its local networks providing their experiences and recommendations of favored contractors and service providers. It polled participating contractors and found that the four most requested bathroom improvement projects were the installation of grab bars in the shower-bath area, replacement of a bathtub with a walk-in shower-tub, installation of bathroom vanities with space underneath to accommodate a wheelchair, and the lowering of electrical switches to make them easier to reach.

[See Seniors' Home Repair Help From Angie's List.] When doing the work, here were the contractors' recommendations:

  • Properly install grab bars and seats so they can withstand the weight they’ll be expected to bear and the safety devices they’re designed to be.
  • Provide safe entry and exit from bath and shower.
  • Install non-slip flooring.
  • Install good lighting.
  • Install lever door handles because they are easier to use than traditional, round door knobs.
  • Round corners to help minimize injuries.
  • While cost is always important, the first priority for bathroom safety is that the modifications perform as advertised. The National Association of Home Builders and AARP helped develop a three-day training program that conveys a CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialist) designation. They've also developed a CAPS locator tool.

    The recession has helped bring down home-improvement prices, according to several contractors. Dan McClure, from Mansfield, TX, says, "For basic or standard materials and installations, we have seen some overall project costs drop 15 percent to 20 percent." In addition, more of his suppliers have held clearance and close-out sales, leading to even larger price savings on some jobs.

    "Handicap-accessible shower stalls, when converted from tub installations, can range anywhere from $1,800 to $5,500," McClure says, "again depending on a wide range of materials selections as well as the degree of difficulty in making the renovation to existing structures." He says toilet change-outs generally range from $285 to $485, and grab-bar installations range from $65 to $95. Don't be surprised if the total cost of a complete "aging-in-place" bathroom begins at $10,000, and moves up from there. However, like all home projects, the sky's the limit, depending on personal tastes. Angie's List heard of one set of grab bars that cost $7,000—just for the bars!

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    Pricing can vary greatly because of differing bathroom layouts, the age and condition of the home, the quality of work desired, and the unseen plumbing and electrical issues that often don't emerge until walls are opened up after a project has begun. For this reason, contractors say consumers should get multiple bids and should make sure they communicate regularly with their contractor.

    Vanessa Cheshire helped her parents renovate their Boston home 15 years ago after her father, then 63, was in a serious car accident. Her parents relocated their living space to the ground floor of their two-story home. Related renovations included making the bathroom wheelchair accessible, widening doorways and erecting an outside wheelchair ramp. Like many projects, this one was driven by necessity. "I don't remember how much all the renovations cost," she recalls. "But I do remember that we did not shop around too much. We went with a known, trusted contractor who had done work for us previously. Our entire family was emotionally overwhelmed. And, we were in a rush to have the renovations done by the time my father would be released from the rehab hospital." Last year, her father passed away, and the bathroom was renovated again to meet the current needs of Cheshire's mother.

    In hindsight, she says, "it would be better to renovate well in advance of a debilitating condition. However, it is hard to know what is needed in advance." While that is a factor, contractors say evolving aging-in-place standards point to many changes that can be made without knowing the specifics of an occupant's special needs. "Baby boomers planning to live in their homes for another 30 years should seriously consider implementing as many universal design concepts as possible," says San Francisco contractor MartinSimenc. These changes include curb-less entries plus arthritis-friendly fixtures and hardware. "Older adults in the midst of a health crisis or rehab should initially focus on the modifications that will maximize their independence immediately," he adds, mentioning grab bars, railings and wheelchair ramps.

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