Your Complete Buyer’s Guide to Accessible Bathing—From Bath Strips to Walk-In Tubs24 minute read

24 minute read

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Updated for December, 2018

Bathtubs and showers pose dangers to people of every age. No matter how healthy or athletic you are, a slip, trip, or fall can happen at any time, and any accident carries the risk of an injury. 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. 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). Overall, 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 that the risks are even higher in the bathroom.

Fortunately there’s a whole industry devoted to making bathing easier for seniors. And the products on offer don’t just make bathing safer: they also make it easier for people with disability issues—whether because of age or illness—to maintain their own hygiene despite their challenges. And some higher end products, like walk-in tubs, offer even more; they provide therapeutic treatments such as spa bathing, whirlpools, and water massage that can help those who suffer from arthritis, circulation problems, Parkinson’s disease, gout, neuropathy, or restless leg syndrome relieve the symptoms of their illnesses in the comfort and privacy of their own homes.

In this article we’ll look at the entire range of bathing accessibility products, with items that will fit any budget and any time frame you have to work in. Whether you just want to make your bathtub safer quickly or want to take advantage of all the therapeutic benefits of a walk-in tub, we’re here to guide you through your options.

As we look at the range of choices for making your bathroom more accessible, we’ll address three scenarios: first, we’ll address the person who wants to make quick and easy changes fast, second, the person who may have a little more time or money to spend, but is still looking to work quickly or on a budget, and third, the person who wants to find a complete solution, and is willing to pay a little more or take a little longer to get it.

Note, though, that the three situations aren’t mutually exclusive. If you’re concerned about bathroom safety, you may want to address fall risks first and then look for something more permanent later; if you’re already sold on a walk-in tub or similar product, you may still want to take some simpler steps while you shop around or wait for installation. The choice is yours, and there’s a world of products out there to choose from.

person standing in wet shower

Product Where to Buy Cost Installation
Bath tape Hardware store, online Less than $10, in most cases DIY, handyman
Grab bars Hardware, bath or medical supply, online $25-$70, plus $30 per grab bar for installation, if needed DIY, handyman
Bath chairs Some drug stores, medical supply stores, online $30-$60, depending on the features included DIY
Transfer Benches Medical supply stores, online $40-$70, depending on features DIY

One thing that that all these products have in common is that while they are inexpensive and easy to install, and while they do make the bathtub safer for those at risk of a fall, they may not make it easier for someone to keep themselves clean. For the most part, too, they won’t allow someone who wants to take a bath to get themselves fully immersed in warm water. So what if you have issues with mobility, and you want a more complete solution? Read on to find out.

If you’re interested in complete bathing solutions that offer a full range of therapeutic benefits then you’ll want to look into walk-in tubs

Off-the-shelf items like grab bars and bath chairs can make it safer for you or your loved ones to bathe without fear of a devastating fall, but there’s more to bathing than just staying safe. And even if you’ve already taken some steps to make your bathtub safer, you may feel that you now have time to think about a more permanent solution.

In that case, there’s another range of products you might want to consider. These specialized accessories offer more accessibility and more safety, and can in many cases make it easier for someone to maintain their own hygiene or even allow someone who might not otherwise be able to immerse themselves in water to take a full-on bath, with all the benefits that confers. (If you’re interested in complete bathing solutions that offer a full range of therapeutic benefits, however, then you’ll want to look into walk-in tubs, which we’ll be exploring later in this article).

Note, though, that these products and solutions are more expensive than the off-the-shelf, do-it-yourself products we’ve discussed so far. Many also require some help with installation, whether from a handyman, plumber, or contractor. Still, as we get older, we never give up wanting to maintain our independence, and being able to wash ourselves in a shower or bathtub is a priceless privilege.

Converting an existing bath or shower to a safer or easier to use version doesn’t change the fact that most bathtubs and showers aren’t designed with older bathers in mind.

Product Where to buy Cost Installation
Handheld shower Hardware stores, online $80-$140, plus $60-$80 for installation, depending on model DIY, handyman, plumber
Lever/easy-grip taps Hardware stores, online $30-$90, depending on manufacturer, plus $60-$100 for installation DIY or handyman (if replacing handles only), plumber (if replacing entire faucet
Sliding bath chair Medical supply stores, online $150-$300 DIY, handyman
Bathtub cut-out Online $325-$500, plus $200-$500 for installation DIY, contractor
Bath lifts Online $150-$600, depending on model DIY
Standard shower Hardware stores, bath supply stores, online Hardware stores, bath supply stores, online $400 for the most basic models, plus installation costs starting around $300

This second set of accessories and modifications can make it easier for someone with mobility issues to take a bath or shower—and they also, for the most part, make bathing safer. But age doesn’t just bring problems with mobility or fall risks; it can also bring with it the sorts of problems that soaking in a tub (and especially in a tub with features like a whirlpool or a spa bath) can help with, problems like arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, circulatory issues, and others. What’s more, converting an existing bath or shower to a safer or easier to use version doesn’t change the fact that most bathtubs and showers aren’t designed with older bathers in mind. If you’re interested in a more complete solution, then you may want to consider some of the broad range of products that go under the heading of walk-in tubs.

senior man in bathroom

Maybe you’ve already taken steps to make your bathtub or shower safer and more accessible. Perhaps you’ve got a little more money to spend, and you want to make sure you get exactly the bath or shower you need to age in place successfully. Or maybe you’ve got a particular condition, like arthritis, neuropathy, or restless leg syndrome, that could be helped with a whirlpool or spa bath. In any of these scenarios, a walk-in tub (or walk-in shower) may be the best and most complete solution to your bathing needs.

A walk-in tub is more than just an ordinary bathtub with a door. The best models are specifically designed to accommodate people who might have trouble sitting or standing while still providing all the advantages of a hot bath. This means:

  • Grab bars in easy reach, already attached to the walls of the bath or built into the body
  • A specially designed seat, usually built into the body of the tub
  • Taps within easy reach, usually set up from the start to be used even by those with mobility problems or arthritis
  • A leak-proof door in the side or front that swings inward or outward, permitting the tub to have an exceptionally low threshold (in the 3”-4” range) for easy access.

Walk-in showers are similarly designed; they replace the door with a water-resistant barrier like a shower curtain or sliding glass door, but they generally include permanent bath chairs (some built in to the body of the shower) and taps and showerheads meant to be used by someone in a seated position.

Walk-in tubs generally provide more than just accessibility and safety, however. Depending on the model you buy, they can come with a full range of therapeutic options in addition to the health benefits of simply being able to soak in hot water. Because they allow a safe, easy way to achieve full immersion, walk-in tubs can:

  • Ease muscle tension
  • Relieve stress
  • Prevent and address pain in muscles and joints
  • Promote circulation
  • Make stretching easier
  • Reduce the effects of chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia
  • Provide support for injured or painful joints

If you’re looking into a walk-in tub, however, you need to keep in mind that “accessible” means different things to different people. In particular, what’s accessible to someone who’s able to walk and simply worried about safety may not be accessible to someone who has trouble staying upright, or who relies on a walker or wheelchair. Here’s a quick look at what kinds of walk-in tubs and showers fit with what kinds of users.

elderly woman in wheelchair with care taker in bathroom

Showers

As mentioned above, walk-in showers are very much like standard showers, except that they usually have a very low threshold and come with many of the most important safety features—such as grab bars, no-slip surfaces, and seating—built in. But while the low threshold makes these showers much more accessible for those who can walk easily, it’s still a barrier for those in wheelchairs. If you’re hoping for a wheelchair-friendly shower, your best bet will likely be a roll-in shower, in which the floor is almost entirely flush with the bathroom floor.

Walk-in Bathtubs

The biggest difference among walk-in tubs (apart from the amenities you choose to have included) is how the bather enters. Most models have an inward-opening door; this is what allows for the low threshold that gives the tub its name. Unfortunately, this type of door isn’t really accessible for those who use wheelchairs, since they’ll have to lift themselves up (and probably rely on their legs) in order to get over the threshold. In this case, you’ll want to go with an outward-opening door, which exposes the side of the built in seat, or with a rising-wall tub, which exposes the entire side of the tub, to make seat-to-seat transfer easier.

Therapeutic Features

If you’re interested in a walk-in tub, it’s likely that you don’t just want better safety and accessibility; you’re also interested in all the ways it can improve your current bathing experience. If that’s the case, you may want to familiarize yourself with the sorts of therapeutic features that walk-in tubs sometimes come with.

Soaker Tubs

There’s plenty of benefits to be had simply by having a hot bath now and then. If that’s all you’re after, you’ll want to look for the simple, straightforward soaker tub models offered by many major manufacturers. Especially when equipped with fast fill faucets, a fast drain, and heated surfaces, these types of tubs provide a great way to safely and easily relax in the bath.

Spa Baths

For many manufacturers, spa systems mark the first tier of therapeutic features. Spa baths force bubbles into the water, creating a more gentle effect that increases your body’s buoyancy and stimulates the skin.

Hydrotherapy

Often referred to as whirlpool baths, hydrotherapy tubs force water through jets in the side of the tub for a more forceful massage than you’ll receive from an air-driven spa. One key here is the placement of the jets: many manufacturers place them strategically in the back of the seat and along the back of the legs to boost the therapeutic effect on some of the areas where we store the most tension.

Chromatherapy

While this feature doesn’t necessarily confer the same physical benefits of a spa bath or a hydrotherapy tub, many find it especially relaxing to have lights in the tub that tinge the water a particular color—or that cycle through a variety of colors. This is a feature that you’ll see in higher-end tubs, but it often comes standard in tubs that offer hydrotherapy.

Aromatherapy

As the name implies, aromatherapy scents the water or the air around the tub in order to provide herbal benefits (such as from lavender or peppermint) or simply to make the experience more pleasant. Like chromatherapy, aromatherapy is usually something only seen in higher-end tubs, but it will often come standard in tubs that offer the full range of other therapeutic functions.

When you’ve decided on the features you want in a walk-in tub, it’s time to actually start shopping for them.

Bathroom Remodeling for Seniors

Types of walk-in baths Full immersion Wheelchair accessible Therapeutic features
Walk-in Shower
Roll-in Shower
Inward-opening door Tub
Outward-opening door Tub
Rising wall Tub

Where to Buy a Walk-in Tub or Shower

There’s as wide a variety of ways to buy a walk-in tub as there are shapes and types of tubs, and choosing which avenue to pursue may depend on your personal inclination or budget.

Buying Direct From the Manufacturer or Dealer

A few brands of tub, most notably SafeStep, are set up to have you contact a centralized call center; this call center will, most often, refer you to a local dealer who will send a representative to talk to you about what you’re looking for in a tub, look over the installation site, and give you a personalized estimate that will include the cost of the tub and the cost of installation. This can be the most simple and straightforward way to get a tub, but it also means that you’re expected to use the dealer or manufacturer recommended installer, even if you have a preferred contractor of your own.

Buying From a Box Store or a Showroom

If you’re open to a variety of manufacturers, or if you want to go and have a closer look at the models available before you decide to purchase, you might want to think about buying from a box store (such as Lowe’s or Home Depot) or visiting your nearest home and bath store to see the models they have available. If you purchase from one of these types of retailers, you can opt to have them do the installation—or you can go with a trusted contractor you already know or that you’ve found on your own. This may also help you keep costs down, especially since box stores in particular give you the opportunity to choose among a few brands. But note that some manufacturers will only provide warranties on the labor provided by their own or their chosen installers, so be sure you know how you stand in that respect.

Buying online

By “online,” we mean from online retailers such as Amazon (or through the online versions of Lowe’s, Home Depot, and other retailers), rather than going through a manufacturer’s website. While prices can be lower if you shop online, and you’re likely to see a wider variety of models and brands available than you would at a brick-and-mortar retailer, buying online also means that you may have to find your own installer (though Lowe’s and Home Depot—and now Amazon—will connect you with contractors who will do the work). It also means that you may put one more level of accountability between you as the consumer and the person you need to contact in order to take care of any problems that arise. If your door seal starts to leak, who will you contact? The installer? The retailer? The manufacturer? Make sure you’re clear on these questions before you click the “buy” button.

  • Wherever you shop for your walk-in tub, here are a few things to keep in mind. Once you’ve closed the door of a tub, you’ll need to stay in there until the tub fills, and you’ll also need to stay in as it empties. Some higher-end models of tub have fast fill and fast drain features that can cut your waiting time significantly (and some also provide heated seats to make the wait more pleasant), but if this seems like too much to ask, and you don’t want to pay more for the additional features, you might want to consider a walk-in shower instead.
  • In part because of the volume of water required, and also in part because of the time it takes to fill, it’s possible that a walk-in tub will increase your need for hot water beyond the capacity of your water heater. As you speak to salespeople and installers be sure to go over this point. As we’ve mentioned, a truly wheelchair accessible tub will need a door that opens outward or a rising wall entrance. If you hope to transfer from a wheelchair to bathe, look for these type models or consider a roll-in shower.
  • Most manufacturers offer models of walk-in tubs that are designed to fit in the footprint of standard tub. Some, though, also offer models that don’t. If you’re shopping for a tub that you hope to swap out with your existing tub, be sure to confirm that your new walk-in tub will fit in the footprint of your old one.
  • Most models with a side door come in left- or right-handed door versions. As you shop, think carefully about how the tub will fit in with the rest of your bathroom, and what door arrangement will suit you best.
  • For the more advanced features, you should look into whether or not the air and water jets are self-cleaning. Do they run through a purge cycle? Is the tub’s interior plumbing microbe resistant? Ask your salesperson or representative about these issues.
  • 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.

For the elderly and low-income, it may be possible to qualify for funding to add a walk-in tub to your bathroom.

Manufacturer Price Range Where to Buy Installation Options
Safe Step Starting at $9000 Manufacturer Manufacturer recommended installers
American Standard $3500-$11,000 Manufacturer, online retailers, box stores, showrooms Manufacturer recommended installers, retailer/dealer installs, third-party contractor
Jacuzzi $5000-$8000 Manufacturer, dealers Manufacturer recommended installers,
Kohler $4000-$10,000 Manufacturer Manufacturer recommended installers
Ella $2250-$7000 Manufacturer, online retailers, box stores, dealers Retailer installs, third-party contractor
Ariel $2000-$4000 Manufacturer, online retailers, box stores, dealers Retailer installs, third-party contractor
Meditub $1500-$5000 Dealers, online retailers Retailer installs, third-party contractor
Universal Tubs $1500-$5000 Online retailers, box stores Retailer installs, third-party contractor

Costs

Of course, one of the biggest issues you’ll confront as you shop is the relative expense of a walk-in tub or shower. But while they do tend to be more expensive than a standard bath (tubs from a nationally recognized manufacturer can run from $3500 to $8000, and can get even more expensive depending on the additional features you choose), the value a tub provides can outweigh the expense. To begin with, the cost of a walk-in tub that provides therapeutic benefits needs to be compared to the cost of similar tubs. If you buy a whirlpool or hot tub designed for those without mobility problems, it’s already going to be more expensive than your standard bathtub. And if you need those therapeutic functions, being able to use them safely and without requiring help may be a godsend. On the subject of safety, the CDC estimates that the average cost for treating a fall is $30,000. Compare that to the cost of a walk-in tub, which offers a complete and effective system to ensure safety and ease of use even without the more luxurious options, and you can see that safety and peace of mind can actually cost less than an event that will happen to at least a quarter of older Americans every year. If you’re still concerned about the expense of a walk-in tub, you should also know that there are some resources available to help people pay for one. After all, it’s in society’s interest that people be able to remain independent and healthy for as long as possible, and bathing is a big part of both. 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. Depending on where you buy the tub or shower, you can probably get financing through the manufacturer, the dealer, or the retailer. 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.

Installation

Once you’ve decided to purchase a walk-in tub or shower, all that remains is installing it. The considerations involved in installing a walk-in tub are similar to the issues involved in any change to your bathroom, but of course many manufacturers will encourage you to work with their preferred installers, and many consumers appreciate the added convenience of not having to shop around for a contractor. At the same time, however, if there’s one consistent problem that crops up in consumer reviews of walk-in tubs, it’s issues related to installation. So whether you’re going with your own contractor, with the in-house or preferred contractors supplied by your retailer, or with the one recommended by the manufacturer, here are some things to consider and some questions to ask to make sure the process goes smoothly.

Who’s responsible? Even before you buy your tub, you need to be clear who’s responsible for problems related to installation. If you’re hiring a contractor on your own, of course, that contractor will be responsible, and it’ll be on you to make sure they take care of any problems that arise. Where it gets complicated, however, is when a manufacturer suggests a local affiliate as their installer. So before you make the purchase, ask: if there’s a problem with the installation, will the manufacturer’s customer service department make sure it gets addressed? Is the contractor’s work guaranteed by the manufacturer? Going with a recommended installer should make the process easier, not harder, so it’s crucial that the manufacturer stands behind any work that needs to be done.

Who will install? It doesn’t hurt to find out exactly who will be doing the installation—and then do some homework. Does the company have a website? Does it have online reviews? If you can do this research, you may very well be able to face the installation with a lot more confidence and less stress. On the other hand, if you find red flags as you do research, you’re within your rights to ask for another installer. All of this goes double if you’re hiring the contractor: look for reviews, get references, and check out more than one firm. You’ll be glad you did.

How long will the installation take? Unforeseen problems are a staple of any work done in the home, but the installer should have a ballpark idea of how long it’s likely to take. A standard timeline, in fact, is one day for removal of an old unit and another day for installation of the new one. Beyond the time required, you’ll want to get a commitment to a date of installation: another common complaint among consumers is installers who have to put off the installation date, sometimes more than once. If a preferred installer does postpone, you should alert the manufacturer or retailer: life happens, and sometimes the job before yours may take longer than expected, but it’s also wise to demand reassurances that no more delays are coming.

Will you need any additional work? Sometimes installing a walk-in tub really is as easy as swapping out your old unit. But as we noted above, sometimes a new water heater may be needed. Sometimes some additional work may need to be done to integrate the tub seamlessly with the rest of the bathroom. Make sure you ask about these and other issues—and get clarity especially on whether the cost for any unforeseen work will be your responsibility, the installer’s, or the retailer’s or manufacturer’s.

CAPS stands for Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist, a designation awarded to certified designers and builders by the National Association of Home Builders. These designees have proven themselves to be experts in the field of modifying homes for people who hope to age in place. If you want to make your home, or the home of someone you care for, safer and more accessible as they grow older, consider looking for a local CAPS designate at the NAHB’s searchable database. These experts can help you make your bathroom—and your home—the perfect place to live for the long haul.

senior man remodeling bathroom

Remember, if you’ve noticed that you or someone you love is having problems with falls, the bath may rapidly become one of the most dangerous parts of the house. And whether you decide to take some quick and easy steps to ward off the danger, or you decide to think long-term and go for the more complete solution, doing nothing is not an option. Your safety—or the safety of the senior in your life—may depend on it. And the value of the added independence and health that comes from a safe, accessible bathing space can’t be measured in money.