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With a goal to remain in their own homes as long as possible, savvy seniors and smart baby boomers are remodeling their baths to support “aging in place” well into their advanced years. It’s part of a concept called universal design, which advocates creating living spaces that accommodate people regardless of their age or physical abilities.

"Active older adults are beginning to decide to stay in their homes for the long term," says Susan Duncan, RN, president of The ABCs of Accessibility Inc., an interior design firm specializing in universal design. "They're looking ahead, and planting the seeds, to figure out how to stay at home."

The last thing health-conscious active adults want are bathrooms that suggest old age or that look remotely institutional. Fortunately, there are features that can help you stay comfortable while enhancing your bathroom's beauty and elegance. Here are some ideas:

Adaptable products

Keep in mind that your bath products must be able to adapt to your changing needs, yet must also be suitable for people of all ages. That’s where the “universal” in universal design comes in.

A spacious, curbless shower with a handshower can be a necessity for an older adult using a mobility device or needing assistance, says Louis Tenenbaum, a consultant on aging in place in Potomac, MD. Handshowers with slidebars are even more versatile, as they can be mounted low enough to accommodate both seated and standing users.

Consider adjustable or customizable cabinets --a vanity cabinet with a removable base or pocket doors can easily allow for a wheelchair. Cabinets and counters wall-mounted on shelf brackets can be adjusted for height or removed to add space for mobility, says Cynthia Leibrock of Easy Access to Health in Livermore, CO.

Another option is a wall-mounted sink. This style works great for aging seniors, since the space can accommodate a wheelchair or other mobility device.

Active older adults are deciding to stay in their homes for the long term.

Invisible integration

It’s easy to anticipate your future needs with some simple choices. Consider accentuating the open space under and around the vanity area with elegant glass countertops, floating drawers and under-sink lighting. Installing side-by-side sinks at two heights can accommodate people of different statures or seated users.

Integrate hidden structural changes during renovation to give you the option of adding features later, when you need them. For instance, plywood reinforcements in bathroom walls give you the option of installing grab bars anywhere in the room at any time.

Universal appeal

Products designed to be easy to use for everyone can offer specific benefits to seniors, particularly those who have problems with their joints or balance. Mary Jo Peterson, a design consultant in Brookfield, Connecticut, and a strong advocate of universal design, points to KOHLER Comfort Height® toilets as a prime example. She says that seniors often opt for toilets with this chair-height, which is comfortable for most average-height adults, while helping seniors avoid excessive bending.

"Over and over again, older people have this 'aha!' experience with Comfort Height toilets," notes Peterson. "They say, 'Oh, much better. Much easier!'"

Faucets are another important consideration. Older adults—or anyone with arthritis or reduced hand dexterity--might find a smooth, round faucet knob difficult to use, Peterson says. Kohler has a large selection of faucets, including the Purist® bathroom sink faucet with a low gooseneck spout and low-lever handles, that are easy to maneuver. What's more, they're beautiful--an essential requirement for aging baby boomers.

Access for all

Some of us need just a little more help in the bath. The innovative Elevance® Rising Wall bath offers a fully immersive, authentic bathing experience for people with mobility issues. Yet unlike other, more institutional options, Elevance is attractive and stylish.

Kohler’s Bold Independence Customer Service team (1-888-9-BOLD-4U) provides white-glove assistance to guide consumers through the buying process, from initial questions to final installation.

Learn more about Elevance: Watch the video.

More accessibility tips

To help with the diminished depth perception and general eyesight weakening that often comes with age, consider using contrasting colors for countertops, showers and toilet zones, Duncan says. This will help provide a visual cue to guide users to key areas of the bathroom.

Non-slip surfaces for floors are also a must. Designers agree that matte-finish tile and honed stone are better choices for bathroom floors than polished surfaces, thanks to their traction, easy maintenance and good looks.

Designing bathrooms with an eye toward the future is a trend that looks likely to grow, as homeowners plan for the needs of their elderly parents and younger people consider remodeling to increase their home's resale value. "If your house can meet older people's needs without the stigma, you've vastly expanded your resale market," says Leibrock.

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