There are three responses to a piece of design – yes, no, and WOW! 9 points to consider when designing bathroom environment for older people and their carers

The aim of a person who is responsible for the choice of critical fixtures that others depend on should be to do their homework correctly first.

Old man and support arms

When we look at the daily ritual of getting on and off the toilet by an older person, their needs in terms of assistance will vary greatly. Having the possibility of restricted movement, poor balance and even the desire of a carer all adds up to thinking the whole process through properly.

Here are 9 points worth considering in the design process to get the WOW-effect:

  1. Space around the toilet is vital, we need to allow the smooth flow of human traffic and accommodate mechanical devices like walking frames etc to be parked directly adjacent the toilet. To avoid OH&S issues, there should be standing space on each side of the toilet ideally, just in case one or two carers need to aid a person whilst toileting.
  2. A wall mounted support arm on each side of the toilet, would deliver the very best opportunity for an older person who is unsteady on his/her feet to undertake a sit/stand manoeuvre. The overall projection of a support arm should be no less than 850mm long, thus enabling a person to stand clear of the toilet but still have something to grasp right by his/her side.
  3. You’ll often see that the shape of a support arm will vary, but the favoured ergonomic profile by users is found in a flatter profile rather than a round tubular design. This reasoning for not using a round support arm is that an older person may have trouble contracting their hand, therefore making it a genuine challenge and possibly painful to interact with a circular shape.
  4. Material content of the support arm should be reviewed, look for slip-resistant properties and tactile finishes that the human hand will make contact with. Avoid raw stainless steel products, look instead at surfaces that use a soft plastic thereby enhancing the desire to hold and are warm to the touch.
  5. Add too, the element of colour contrast, as many older people have reduced visual ability leading to problems when determining depth and locality of fixtures. Study into the best colours in a bathroom for products like a support arm, are either dark grey or blue when set against a light plain background.
  6. Consider adopting a toilet paper holder within the support arm, just so that a person doesn’t have to extend themselves in order to reach necessities. In some cases such as an Aged Care facility, it could be seen as an advantage to place a nurse call button either right next to the toilet, or with the support arm itself.
  7. In recent years the Australian market has seen a movement towards securing support equipment directly to the toilet and not taking advantage of a more practical wall anchorage. Beware of totally discounting a wall mounted support arm in preference of placing a crude engineering option on the toilet pan to assist a person, as there are some significant negatives in doing so. One of the biggest hurdles is the hygiene of additional equipment placed on the toilet beside the seat, as the proximity to contaminated material that can spread infection is immense.
  8. An elevated means of supporting a person via wall mounted support arm, slightly away from the action that revolves around the toilet pan, always win out when looking at the control of bacteria, especially in the Aged Care environment.
  9. With the ever-present need to have safety in mind, let us not forget the weight loading capacity of any fixture an older person will need to interact with. Try to benchmark 150kg as the guide for items like support arms, as well as seeking out a design that has a smooth folding motion when it has to be gently lifted.

You’ve now got all the right ingredients, so there’s no reason to get the recipe wrong!