Q: My Grandma travels with a wheelchair, and I want a guest bathroom on the first floor that will allow her and my Grandpa to visit -- or for when my parents need it, too, someday. I haven’t ever seen a bathroom like that in somebody’s house without it looking like a hospital. Where should I start?
A: Accessible bathrooms shouldn’t be limited to hospitals or commercial buildings. In a private home, this is an “aging-in-place” concept, which can add value to your home. Whether you’re building from scratch or doing a minor remodel, discuss your goals with your designer or contractor for options that will work in your house. And as far as the finishes go, that’s the easiest part -- most anything you think looks good will work fine. Accessibility comes from the layout and fixtures more than the finishes.
As you already know, the best options for a welcoming guest room and bathroom for your grandparents would be on the main level. This eliminates barriers such as stairs. Thinking along these lines, consider the access to the house from outdoors. Is the path smooth and flat, or gently sloped? Are there steps to the front door, and is it wide, with a low threshold? Levers are easier to operate than doorknobs, too, if you want to make wholesale changes.
Once inside, anyone with a wheelchair will need more space to maneuver, especially at corners and in front of doors. Wider hallways are open and airy, and feel more inviting than narrow, dark spaces to anyone. The guest bedroom itself should also have plenty of room to move around, so you might not use as much furniture as you would otherwise. Choose hard, smooth, nonslip materials for flooring, such as stone or ceramic tile in the bathroom, and a very low-profile loop carpet in the bedroom. Area rugs are beautiful but can be a tripping hazard, so put them away when your relatives come to visit.
In the bathroom itself, install sturdy grab bars for the toilet and the bathtub or shower. Towel bars are not strong enough! Grab bars come in finishes you’d expect for any bathroom, not just institutional stainless steel. And the top of the sink and counter should be lower than normal, which, these days, can be as high as a kitchen counter. Provide plenty of space to sit under the counter, like at a desk. Under the counter, drawer units on wheels or baskets can provide storage that you can remove when necessary. The faucet, too, should be easy to use. Consider a luxuriously roomy roll-in shower if you have the space. At the tub or shower, a sturdy, rigid seat will be much safer and sturdier than a portable stool. Plan for this bench to be near the shower controls, and to fold up against the wall when not in use. An adjustable-height, handheld shower head is easy for a seated bather to use, and it could work well for washing your dog or even cleaning the shower walls.
When you’re shopping for faucets, toilets and other fixtures, check for items that are “ADA-compliant” which refers to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the antidiscrimination law requiring equal access for everyone. A quick search online for “ADA-accessible bathroom” will deliver hours of reading and plenty of inspiration!