A Complete Guide to Purchasing a Walk-In Bathtub18 minute read
18 minute read|
Updated for December, 2018
Bathtubs and showers pose dangers to people of every age. Slipping, tripping, and falling are very real risks of bathing and showering. But no one is as much at risk as the elderly— and not only because they are necessarily more likely to fall. For older adults, recovering from a fall can be difficult and sometimes impossible. According to the National Council on Aging, one in four Americans over 65 falls each year. Falls are the leading cause of fatal injury among older adults, and the most frequent reason for non-fatal trauma as well.
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Table of Contents
- Health & Safety Benefits Of Walk-In Bathtubs
- How Does A Walk-In Tub Work?
- Are Walk-In Tubs Better Than Regular Tubs & Showers?
- Price Of Safety
- Brands, Types, Features & Cost
- Installation & Upkeep
- Lighting and Color
- Is A Walk-In Tub Right For You?
- Paying For Your Walk-In Tub
- How To Shop For & Purchase A Walk-In Tub
Bathrooms contain some of the biggest falling hazards for older adults. Most people realize that steam and undrained water can make surfaces slippery. But one of the greatest dangers are the edges of bathtubs. Climbing over a high edge to get into the water demands a grip strength and sense of balance that can become compromised with age.
Luckily, there are alternatives to traditional tubs, including handicapped-accessible showers and walk-in bathtubs. With all the significant health benefits that bathing offers, it pays to know your options among types of tubs available. We’ll walk you through today’s options and discuss walk-in tub manufacturers, tub installation, and how to decide whether tubs are for you.
Many walk-in tubs include upscale features such as jets that massage the back and removable handheld showerheads.
How Does a Walk-in Tub Work?
Walk-in shower units are a common feature in most modern homes. They use glass walls to enclose the showering area, sometimes provide access to the showering area by means of a water-resistant door and door frame, and sometimes include a seat in one corner.
In the tub version, the door into the bathing area is watertight while still allowing ground-level access. Essentially, the walk-in tub is a modern bathtub used in much the same way as any tub: it is a vessel that fills up with hot water, allowing a person to immerse themselves. The main difference is that walk-in tubs have a door in the side. To prevent spills, you must close the door before filling the tub. This means that you must enter the tub before turning the water on and can only get back out after all the water drains.
Walk-in tubs typically include all of the safety features that the elderly use to modify traditional bathrooms: grab bars, seats, nonslip surfaces, and other measures. You’ll have all of these features in one place and positioned for maximum safety and mobility in your bath.
Many walk-in tubs include upscale features like massage jets and removable hand-held shower heads that allow you to bathe in a seated position. In a pinch, you can also shower in a walk-in tub without having to fill it up all the way. This is a fantastic way to enjoy all the benefits of a hydrotherapy tub without having to climb in over the side and risk a fall.
So are walk-in bathtubs really a better option than just adding safety features to traditional tub and shower setups?
Are Walk-In Tubs Better Than Regular Tubs and Showers?
Walk-in tubs address many of the safety inadequacies of normal bathrooms. In a fall, a standard bathroom is a dangerous place. Neither shower curtains nor sliding glass doors offer much in the way of support to prevent falls, and the latter can even make the situation worse if they shatter. Even safety grab bars can get slippery and fail, and towel bars are even worse – they won’t be able to support a person’s full weight in an emergency.
While walk-in or accessible showers provide a comparable level of safety during entry, they are not necessarily safer than regular tubs. You will still have to stand and walk around for much of the time you’re in one, creating a significant possibility of slipping. Slippery grab bars and glass shower doors may increase the risk of a fall in some situations. In some cases, a shower bench can help reduce these dangers, so for seniors who have considerable mobility left, that may be enough.
One in three adults has trouble getting into and out of the bathtub.
As walk-in bathtubs are a relatively new technology, there aren’t yet any reliable statistics exist on whether having them really reduces the chance of a fall. But according to Medical Alert Advice, one in three adults has trouble getting into and out of the bathtub. If you are one of them, walk-in tubs can definitely make life easier as their doors open at ground level. They also provide a seated environment that doesn’t require you to move or maintain balance while bathing, and are designed to be easier to stand and get out of. In addition, they are arrayed with solid surfaces for supporting your weight.
If you are neither disabled or unsteady, however, a walk-in tub may not be worth it. One of the biggest complaints against walk-in tubs is having to wait while the bathtub fills and drains. This can be a pretty cold experience, and usually takes about 10 minutes on either end (except in the case of a quick-draining tub). Warm towels and robes can help mitigate the effects of cold, however, and after a good long soak in a hot tub, you may feel warm enough while the water drains.
A full 80 percent of falls happen in the bathroom, according to NewsUSA.
The Price of Safety
Far and away one of the most compelling arguments for walk-in tubs is the fact that they could save a significant chunk of change in the long run when you compare the cost of the tub to the cost of a fall.
More than 300,000 people are hospitalized each year from broken hips, and 95% of these fractures are the result of a fall, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). A full 80% of falls happen in the bathroom, according to NewsUSA, quoting a National Institute on Aging statistic. Considering that a quarter of all Americans 65 and older fall each year, this means every senior stands a significant chance of experiencing a fall and having to pay the attendant costs.
The CDC adds that the average cost for treating a fall is $30,000. Considering that the cost of a fall increases with age, and that people who fall are twice as likely to fall again, this is not an easily overlooked statistic. Compare that to the cost of bathtubs for the disabled, which run between $2,000 and $8,000, depending on the level of luxury, and you can see that safety and peace of mind actually cost less than an event that will happen to at least a quarter of older Americans every year.
Which raises more questions: What brand of bathtub is best, which features do you need, and what are the costs of a walk-in tub?
A bathtub with a door is neither hard to find nor prohibitively expensive.
Brands, Types, Features and Cost
The good news is that a bathtub with a door is neither hard to find nor prohibitively expensive. If you need or want a fully accessible bathroom, a walk-in tub is an obvious place to start. Whether choosing one of the more affordable safety tubs, a high-end Jacuzzi tub, or just the best walk-in bathtub for your particular space and health needs, you can find a range of choices at common home improvement stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s.
Before choosing your tub, look at all the options. Many manufacturers make walk-in tubs, and below are some of the most common brands and their features, as well as a general price range for each brand. Note that some price ranges are wider than others.
While safety tubs come with a huge range of different features depending on the model, American Standard walk-in bathtubs are among the best. Even at lower prices, their tubs are attractive and come with all the safety assets: seats, low doors, and grab bars. If you want to spend a bit more, you can get a tub with jets for massaging the back and legs as well as those with a quick-drain feature that will enable you to spend less time waiting to get out. Prices range widely, from $3,000 to $7,000.
Safe Step sells “Cadillac” safety tubs. They only offer prices upon request, but they tend to be among the more expensive models on the market. They start as high as $8,000 and going up to tens of thousands, depending on the features you choose – for instance, installation of a full shower in the tub or a bidet for quick soaks to wash nether areas. You can get a rebate of up to $1,500 if your household qualifies for a medical break.
Homeward Bath is definitely one of the most affordable options on the market. They offer bare-bones models that essentially offer a door cut into the side of a traditional tub. Their tubs are often lower-sided and lack seats, meaning that you must still lower yourself to the floor. If you’re simply hoping to prevent tripping and are still mobile enough to climb all the way down and stand back up, this might work. These models run around $1,500 to $2,000.
Long recognized as one of the best makers of soaking tubs, and synonymous with the water jets that provide the rest and relaxation spas are known for, Jacuzzi offers a compelling line of walk-in tubs. Not only are they plush, with full safety settings, they’re beautiful and don’t cost as much as Safe Step. They typically run about $5,000 on up, according to consumer reviews (since they do not list prices on their site), though they also offer a rebate if you qualify.
Ella tubs have the traditional complement of features, but one of their most exciting offerings is the companion tub, which allows seniors to soak with spouses. These tubs are usually about $5,000 and have most of the nicer features, including jets and quick-drain technology, so the tub only takes a minute or two to empty.
Getting handicapped bathtubs into pre-existing bathrooms is not as hard as many people think.
Installation and Upkeep
Once you’ve decided on your tub or shower/tub combo, it’s time to figure out what the installation process is like for step-in bathtubs. Luckily, installing handicapped bathtubs into pre-existing bathrooms is not as hard as many people think. It frequently requires no construction whatsoever beyond the installation of the tub itself and usually only takes a day or two.
That’s because walk-in tubs typically have a footprint comparable to standard tubs. Bathtubs for the elderly typically have higher sides, with a slightly shorter internal width to account for thicker walls. The seat fits within the inside of the tub, so overall, the whole thing doesn’t take up more space in the bathroom.
When it comes time to install the tub, contact the dealer and ask them about their process. One option is to order straight from the manufacturer, such as Jacuzzi or Safe Step, and have their technicians come out for the installation. You can also order through a home improvement store and make use of their technicians. This is typically is a slightly cheaper option, but not always. Also keep in mind that some brands only use their own service professionals. When choosing a tub and installation pros, make sure that they are fully licensed and certified so that you will have recourse if something goes wrong.
After the installation, look over the tub carefully to note any defects. If they seem significant, call the installers back and get them checked out. Put the warranty somewhere safe, in case you need a replacement part or a completely new tub through no fault of your own. Do not buy a tub that doesn’t come with a warranty.
To keep the tub safe and clean, always wipe down surfaces after a bath. Turn on the fan or open a window after – or even better, during the bath, if it doesn’t create too much chill. This will help prevent mildew and mold. While most tubs are resistant to mold and mildew, they will eventually build up scum, so be careful. When using cleanser, use a gentle sponge and be sure not to abrade the bathtub surface.
A common benefit cited for walk-in tubs is that they increase the user’s ability to bathe, with all the health benefits that confers, including reducing the need for pain medication.
Is a Walk-in Tub Right for You?
After learning about features, brands and installation procedures, it’s time to make sure you really want a walk-in tub. How do you know if it’s the right choice, and how can you be sure you’re choosing the model that best suits your needs?
One oft-overlooked drawback of walk-in tubs is that they simply don’t work for people who have severe mobility issues. As the name suggests, seniors have to be able to walk in order to get inside them. People who are recovering from surgery, who have had a debilitating condition such as a stroke, or who have diseases that affect movement (such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis) may not be able to walk into tubs. They may do better sliding into them from a wheelchair with the help of a bench and then lowering themselves in, for instance.
Another fact to consider with a walk-in bathtub/shower is whether or not you have good help. Most walk-in tubs have a shower head down by the faucets, so you can simply grab it and use it. On others, however, the shower head is up above. Though they may still be removable, this might not work for the elderly who don’t have assistance showering.
But for those who simply have trouble sitting and standing, a walk-in tub can be a great help. Instead of having to step over a ledge and lower themselves in – or stand under a shower for long periods of time – it is much easier to walk in and sit down with the safety of the routinely featured handrails. For those with minor mobility issues who want to err on the side of caution, this is a huge benefit.
Another common benefit cited for walk-in tubs is that they increase the user’s ability to bathe, with all the health benefits that confers, including reducing the need for pain medication. People who have fibromyalgia or arthritis may find this appealing – especially if they experience significant side effects from their prescriptions.
Note that walk-in tubs almost never raise the value of a home, so don’t expect to get a return on your investment. The exception is in retirement communities, where any new buyers are as likely as the original users to want this kind of bathroom feature.
Depending on where you live, your state may offer funding dedicated to senior health.
Paying for Your Walk-in Tub
If you do decide a walk-in tub is right for you, it’s time to figure out how to pay for it. Unfortunately, Medicare almost never pays for them, nor do standard insurance companies. Tubs are typically considered a choice rather than a medical necessity. In some rare cases, a written doctor’s recommendation can secure some forms of subsidy. Medicaid may offer some assistance in some states, but the chances of receiving it are slim.
The following options have the highest likelihood of providing assistance purchasing a walk-in tub, so make sure to explore them before paying out of pocket:
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture: The USDA sometimes pays for walk-in tubs. For the elderly and low-income, it may be possible to qualify for funding to add a walk-in tub to your bathroom.
- Veteran aid: Although it is not common, those who have a medical need for a safety tub related to military service may be able to get partial or full coverage for a tub. It’s worth checking with the local V.A. office to find out.
- State assistance programs: Again, depending on where you live, your state may offer funding dedicated to senior health. Check with your state’s Department of Health and Safety to learn more.
- Nonprofit groups: Some nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations may assist people in low-income communities with installing a walk-in tub to save on installation costs. However, they typically will not cover the cost of the tub itself, so you still need to come up with the money.
- Rebates: As mentioned, you may qualify for a rebate from the manufacturer after installing a tub. Make sure to compare all manufacturers to get the best deal.
- Tax deductions: In some cases, if the tub is a medical necessity, it may be possible to deduct the cost of the tub and installation on your tax return. You will most likely need a note from a medical professional to prove that it is medically necessary.
- Financing: Almost all walk-in tubs, if not all, offer financing options. You can either work out a plan with the company itself or get financing through a reputable dealer or home improvement store.
No matter what type of tub you hope to buy, it’s always worth looking into financing and coverage options before you make the purchase. In order to get some of the costs covered, you will need to get the right information and fill out paperwork, so never make the mistake of buying first and trying to get money back later.
Most walk-in tubs offer a lifetime warranty on the door seal; don’t buy one that doesn’t.
How to Shop for and Purchase a Walk-in Tub
So you have read all the information, know that you can pay for your tub, and are ready to find the right one for you. Tubs for handicapped people do differ in many ways, and taking care with your decision now will ensure you don’t have buyer’s remorse later. Here are some points to consider:
Always shop from a certified brand. Check with the American National Standards Institute, for instance, or ask the manufacturer if they are approved by another governing body. While you may find a well-made walk-in tub from an overseas manufacturer in rare cases, your best bet for quality is to buy a U.S.-made model.
Always ask about customer service before purchase. What kind of help will you receive if you need it, and for how long after making the purchase? You should also thoroughly vet installation personnel, ask for licenses and certification, and make sure that all technicians have undergone a background check before allowing them into your home.
Warranties are crucial. Does your tub come with a lifetime warranty, or will it eventually expire, leaving you holding the bag? The most important warranty to check for is the door seal, because the tub will be useless if it fails and begins to leak. Most walk-in tubs offer a lifetime warranty on the seal. Don’t buy one that doesn’t.
Make sure that the size and shape of the tub fit your needs. While lower tubs are often less expensive, they can leave the upper half of the body out of the water, which is unpleasant. Also, while many walk-in tubs fit into a standard tub footprint, don’t assume they all do. Always take measurements before purchasing your tub. Think carefully about door options as well. Most open inward, but some people cannot successfully navigate the inside of the tub if an inward-opening door is in the way. In that case, you need a door that opens out. Other options include massage jets and drains engineered specifically to empty quickly. If either of these features are important to you, make sure you buy a model that includes them.
Lastly, you have a choice of where to shop. Some people like to cut out the middleman and go straight to the manufacturer to make communication and planning easier. On the other hand, some prefer the convenience and good name of well-established home improvement stores.
At the end of the day, whether you should get a walk-in tub depends on how well it fits your lifestyle and your needs. If you are a spouse or caregiver, consult the senior in question for their opinion on the matter. If you’re the senior, talking to your support team is crucial to make sure having a walk-in tub works for everyone. If you take everyone’s needs into account, and you take care with your purchase, you’re bound to make the right choice.