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Walk-in bathtub or shower ideal for safety reasons

Everyone enjoys a relaxing bath or an invigorating shower. But for the elderly or disabled, traditional bathtubs and showers can present a safety challenge.

Taking that first step into a bathtub or shower, especially without assistance, can lead to slips, falls and fractures — the most common types of injuries among the elderly. However, a walk-in bathtub or shower, with its low-barrier threshold and compliant seating, can address this safety concern.

A traditional bathtub stands 14 to 22 inches from the ground. The tub bather must be able to lift one leg over the edge while balancing on the other leg for support, then be able to lower his or her body into the tub at the start of the bath and pull out when finished.

Welcome to a walk-in tub: a vertical version of a traditional bathtub. Walk-in tubs provide more stability during bathing than traditional bathtubs.

A door on the front allows the bather to step over a very small threshold, often just a few inches in height. Once inside, the bather can sit down in a preformed chair that is part of the tub.

The bather shuts the door and activates the water faucets to fill the tub. Those who cannot pull themselves out of a traditional tub can easily exit a walk-in tub, and people who cannot shower because of stability issues enjoy an easy-access bath.

Brett Primack, the owner of Las Vegas Remodel and Construction, has been busy remodeling bathrooms to simplify the bathing experience, and most of that remodeling is taking out the tub and replacing it with a walk-in shower.

“The term for the elderly within the industry is ‘live in place’ or ‘age in place,’” he said. “This allows a person to stay in the family home where he or she has lived for years for as long as possible.

“Another term is ‘multigenerational home’ where a parent or loved one is living with a family relative. Most of the replacements in the family home are done in the master bath. If the person in need is living with a relative, then the remodel is usually in the guest or hall bathroom.”

The bath remodel can include features such as choice of color, lights, jet faucets and sound system. Primack makes sure the doorway is wide enough for access if the person is using a wheelchair or walker, and he can add grab or safety bars to ensure a safe experience. Wheelchair-bound patients are able to make an easier transition from chair to the tub, while caretakers have an easier time helping patients in and out of the tub.

“Our job is to make a client’s life better,” Primack said. “I receive literature from the Living in Place Institute that keeps me updated on innovative ways to make a bath safer. Our client base ranges from 45 to 75 years old and have questions on how to make their bathroom safer. We strive to keep our clients out of rehab and especially out of a nursing home by avoiding preventable injuries.

“Once our job is complete, some customers have returned to give me or my staff a hug because we have made their lives better. I’m often asked about other bathroom safety features, and the most requested include toilets that sit taller off the ground, nonslip floors and adding safety bars.”

Barrier-free shower stalls are a good idea for anyone aging in place.

Most showers have a 2- or 3-inch threshold. Normally this works well, but if someone is using a walker, a wheelchair or have trouble lifting his legs, getting over that seemingly small hump can be daunting.

Seats or benches can be added, and, of course, grab bars are also important and should be sturdy enough to support as much as 300 pounds.

Primack and his team can visit a home and show various conversions and compare a walk-in tub to a walk-in shower. He has taken small showers and expanded them up to 12 feet long. The conversion of either can take three days up to four weeks depending on the specific needs and goals of the client and changes in plumbing and electrical upgrades.

Primack points out that there are issues to consider before installing a walk-in bathtub.

“Walk-in tubs take five to seven minutes to fill and the process cannot begin until the user steps in,” he said. “It takes two to four minutes to drain. Because the water is holding the door shut, the bather must wait for the water to drain completely before stepping out. Walk-in tubs often aren’t as spacious as traditional tubs and once installed, it becomes a permanent household fixture.”

Installing a walk-in bathtub requires time, planning and financial investment. And that financial investment may not be covered by Medicare as it does not currently consider walk-in tubs to be “durable medical equipment” and will not reimburse the cost of purchase or installation.

Some Medicaid plans will consider a partial compensation for walk-in tubs, but, in general, the user would have to demonstrate a bona fide medical need. However, it is possible for qualified walk-in tub owners to deduct certain expenses (including a therapeutic walk-in tub) if they have dependents living in the home.

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