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Retrofitting Bathrooms for Handicap-Accessibility Is Easier Than Ever

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I always thought of the walk-in bathtub as something you would see advertised on TV back in the day — but only after midnight, when they also advertise a weird assortment of kitchen devices.

Yet oddly enough, I just specified one of these for a pretty, hip retiree and her husband. She's tiny and fit and full of life. So why would she be interested in such a tub, and why do you want to know about it? Well, it happens that this lovely lady has an adult daughter with physical challenges, and so she's on top of Americans with Disabilities Act requirement. She has personally experienced the reality of trying to get a house to be responsive to the needs of someone who must use a wheelchair.

My client wants to remodel her final home in a way that makes it ready for any changes in her and her husband's health. Dramatic physical limitations can happen to people at any time in their lives, so it isn't accurate to imagine a walk-in bathtub as the prevue of only the very elderly.

It gets me thinking about how one can make any home friendlier to that reality without a huge remodel. Know that the number of manufacturers producing these tubs has increased in recent years. Kohler has trotted out the Elevance Rising Wall, which offers independence in a 5-foot, standard-size tub alcove most common in tract houses. It's designed to fit through a standard 30-inch-wide door opening for easy installation. The door glides on a track system with a counterbalance to make it lightweight and easy to operate, and the tub has a dual pipe system that allows it to fill in just three to four minutes.

Generally, the design people are familiar with the style with a swinging door. I actually sat in one of these at the last Kitchen and Bath Industry Show in Las Vegas and was struck by how cozy it felt. You can buy tubs that are about 28 inches by 48 inches in this style and can be fit into even the littlest bathrooms.

But something else hit me as I sat in the tub: You have to wait for the water to drain before you can leave the tub! Therefore, you need to investigate the time it takes to drain.

American Standard is one company that offers a 48-by-28-inch walk-in whirlpool bath. All of these designs are guaranteed, with a watertight door system. You can also consider that some walk-in tubs offer a heating element, which obviously helps as one sits and waits for the tub to drain.

Any of these tubs can offer an easier way to retrofit a home to suit accessibility requirements in lieu of the total gutting of an existing bathroom. However, some prefer to create a "wet" room. That's a bathroom with a zero-clearance entry and a sloping floor with a drain for the entire room. All wall surfaces are covered in some type of waterproof material — ceramic tile, natural stone or glass tile. Special care must be taken in an existing home to prepare the floor slope properly so as to assure that water will not affect the adjoining spaces or damage surface materials.

Other obvious preparations one can make are simpler items such as sturdy and well-placed grab bars. You can select a wheelchair-accessible sink that will work today and be there in the future, should you need it. Over the years, I've noticed that people most often don't want to discuss those simple grab bars, let alone more exotic preparations for advanced years. Since design has become more sophisticated and more visually sleek for all sorts of fixtures that are accessible, it really shouldn't be something to fear.

If you're in the middle of a bathroom remodel, give a little thought to how you might prepare today for any future physical changes that might make using a regular bathroom difficult.

Christine Brun, ASID, is a San Diego-based interior designer and the author of "Small Space Living." Send questions and comments to her by email at christinebrun@sbcglobal.net. To find out more about Christine Brun and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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