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Create a Safe Bathroom for the Aging Eye

December, 2013

Design ideas that support homeowners with age-related vision loss.


Vision loss is a leading cause for loss of independence among seniors, according to the Alliance of Aging Research, and can interfere with simple everyday tasks, such as dressing and bathing. It's also a risk factor for falls in the home, especially in the bathroom, where 80 percent of falls among adults 65 or older occur. Design professionals can help keep senior clients safe and comfortable by incorporating strategies that address their visual needs.

safe bathroom
In a light-colored room, faucets and grab bars in a darker finish, such as Moen's old-world bronze, provide more contrast and heighten visibility.

Analyze illumination

Lighting should be bright to compensate for reduced light penetration caused by changes in the cornea, pupil size and lens. Ambient illumination levels should be twice or three times the norm and supplemented with task lighting for grooming and, more importantly, reading labels on medication bottles. Shower and bath areas, where users are typically without their glasses, require lighting that is unobstructed by enclosures and bright enough to be visible in mist, according to the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES).

Control glare

Glare control is a must, as light scatter makes aging eyes particularly sensitive to glare. Light bulbs above eye level should be shielded with fabric shades or frosted glass, and incoming daylight should be filtered with tinted sunshades or sheers. Designer Diane Gunson, ASID, CAPS, of Eye Sense in Denver, recommends directing vanity bar lighting toward the ceiling, instead of downward, where it can reflect off a surface into one's eyes. Choosing countertops, cabinets, hardware and faucets in a matte finish can further minimize stray light.

Think day and night

Ideally, daylight should come from more than one direction to provide uniform illumination, which is easier on senior eyes. As the eye ages, its muscles weaken and adapt more slowly to changes in light levels. If the room has only one window, the IES suggests increasing electric lighting to compensate. At night, low light levels should be maintained for those who need to use the bathroom. Having a light switch near the bed and nightlights mounted low on the walls leading to the bathroom will aid with wayfinding.

Establish tonal contrasts

Because the lens yellows with age, thus diminishing the eye's ability to differentiate color, Gunson suggests using strong tonal contrasts to highlight transitions between adjacent materials. Articulate the edges of countertops, sinks and transitions in flooring with contrasting stripes or LED tapelight. Paint switch plates, doorframes, chair rails and baseboards a different color from the walls to reinforce spatial orientation and help with navigation. Similarly, if the walls are light-colored, opt for faucets and grab bars in a darker finish, such as oil-rubbed bronze, to heighten their visibility.

Warm with color

Grays and neutrals may be popular in the bathroom, but homeowners with low vision benefit more from a warm color scheme. Spice tones, such as reds, oranges and colors in the copper to golden range, are easier to see through yellowed lenses than blues and purples, Gunson says. Filtered daylight and 3000K fluorescent lamps offer better visibility than incandescent sources, which are yellower and further obscure color differentiation.

Activate the senses

The bathroom can also support low-vision users with tactile cues and other sensory information. Install embossed ceramic floor tiles or rubber flooring near steps or doorways, alerting users to transitions that could be trip hazards. Sensor-activated faucets, bath fans and lighting eliminate the need for manual operation.

Much of aging-in-place design addresses the physical disabilities that come with growing old. As most people will experience changes in vision as they age, a bathroom that responds accordingly will help keep senior homeowners independent and safe longer.

Strategies for a Mold-Free Bathroom

December, 2013

Managing moisture is key to prevention.


Mold doesn't grow just anywhere. Four conditions are necessary for it to thrive: a continuous water source, an environment with a neutral or slightly acidic pH, a temperature range of 40 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and a food source — as Andrew Acker, manager of education for Schluter Systems, notes, "It's an organism that needs something to eat." Given these pre-conditions, bathrooms, not surprisingly, are particularly vulnerable. But much can be done to keep this fungus in check.

Moen mold-free bathroom before
Moen mold-free bathroom after
Using a moisture-resistant rigid foam panel, such as Schluter Systems' Kerdi-Board, in shower and tub areas can help prevent mold growth. (Construction and finished photos: Schluter Systems)

Vapor retardants

Some tile is impermeable to moisture, but grout is not. Consequently, showers — especially steam showers — should incorporate a vapor retarder to prevent the diffusion of water vapor through the wall, Acker says. Water vapor migrates from areas of high concentration to low concentration or from a warm, humid environment to one that's cooler. Once inside a wall cavity, it can condense and accumulate over time, creating problems of mold and, ultimately, rot and decay. This is more likely to occur in airtight homes, where a lack of natural infiltration prevents walls from drying out quickly.

Moreover, not all materials used to waterproof a shower will resist water vapor diffusion. Those that do have been tested against ASTM E96, Standard Test Methods for Water Vapor Transmission of Materials, and given a vapor permeance rating of less than 1 perm (the lower the number, the less permeable the material). According to Acker, cleavage membranes, used traditionally to uncouple the tile assembly from the substrate and aid in curing, can also function as vapor retarders.

Shower and tub barriers

Showers present other vulnerabilities. Because water can migrate horizontally, Barry Fennell, director of remodeling services at Wardell Builders, erects a barrier, such as a piece of L-metal or a waterproofing strip, along the outer edge of the shower walls to prevent water from wicking into the bathroom walls. He also suggests extending the waterproofing membrane or hot-mopping 24 to 36 inches beyond the shower stall to include the surrounding floor area, where "there's a lot of standing around and water dripping."

Tub areas can also be problematic. Seams must be properly sealed. Fennell seals the lip to the waterproofing membrane and caulks, rather than grouts, the joint where the tub meets the tiled wall. While grout will crack over time, he notes, caulk allows for movement and the ability to clean and recaulk when necessary. Tub decks are typically framed in wood and therefore must be waterproofed or constructed from moisture-resistant rigid foam panels.

Sealants and fans

Leak points, whether they allow air or water through, should be sealed. This includes all penetrations in the floor, wall and ceiling. Toilets should be properly installed and caulked to the floor, and recessed lighting should be airtight. In the vanity area, countertops with integral sinks eliminate seams where water can infiltrate.

Of course, a bath fan that vents to the outdoors is critical. Under new building codes, having an operable window is no longer sufficient, Fennell says. If the bathroom is large or has a separate toilet room, it may require more than one fan. As a quieter alternative, Fennell installs one remote blower and ducts it to multiple registers, one of which is usually located right outside the shower.

As open-plan bathrooms and barrier-free showers become more popular, managing moisture and waterproofing beyond traditional wet areas may be a good idea, Acker says. Using mold-resistant paperless drywall in bathrooms, as well as laundry rooms, is standard practice for Wardell Builders, Fennell notes, and may have originated as a response to these trends. Advances in materials, products and even thinking will no doubt yield new and exciting possibilities in keeping bathrooms mold-free.