Brain-friendly bathroom fixes

If you’re caring for an ageing parent or loved one with dementia, you’ll know that little changes around your house can make life much easier and safer for everyone. Carolyn Tate delves into the experts' advice on how to renovate or alter the bathroom to make it the most functional room in the house.

By Carolyn Tate

The bathroom is the room in your home where accidents are most likely to occur.

Transforming  bathrooms into a space that is both safe and comforting is one of those important changes if you have to care for someone in cognitive or physical decline.

Caring for a loved one can be daunting. Planning a bathroom upgrade is even more challenging.

It’s hard to know what needs to change and how to prevent accidents or stress. Read on for a guide to offer tips and ideas that can help you to be proactive and create a safe bathroom that helps your loved one to maintain their independence and wellbeing.

Understanding personal hygiene challenges for loved ones in cognitive decline

If you’re caring for someone with dementia or cognitive decline, it can help to acknowledge the difficulties they may face with taking care of their personal hygiene. 

Cognitive decline and dementia is a huge challenge for all Australians (especially governments and the health system). You can read more about it on cognitive decline and dementia 101.

2022 figures show  there were 15 people with dementia for every 1000 Australians, which increases to 84 people with dementia per 1000 Australians aged 65 and over.  

In 2023, Dementia Australia estimated there were 1.5 million Australians involved in the care of someone living with dementia - the numbers for those caring for people with mild cognitive decline are likely to be higher.

People experiencing cognitive decline are likely to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about needing help, especially with intimate tasks. Patience, reassurance, and respect can help everyone to feel comfortable and safe. A safe bathroom environment makes it even better.

Tailoring the bathroom for safety

First and foremost, it’s important to ensure your bathroom is safe. 

These tips from healthy ageing organisation Benjamin Rose may help:

  • Sanitise your bathroom regularly, especially commonly used surfaces such as the door knob, light switch and taps.
  • Install handrails in the bathtub and next to the toilet. Some people may grab towel rails to steady themselves, but they’re not designed to support a person’s weight, which could lead to falls.
  • Place non-skid strips on the bottom of the shower and bathtub, and have a non-skid rug or mat on the floor to help prevent falls. You may also find a shower chair useful if your loved one likes a shower but finds standing unassisted for longer periods challenging.
  • Consider adjusting the temperature of your hot water so it can’t cause burns if turned on accidentally. 
  • If the style of taps are challenging to turn, you can also buy easier wand-style taps from hardware stores to make using water in the bathroom less challenging.
  • Check your cupboards and drawers for items that are better locked away, such as medicines, rubbing alcohol, nail polish remover, soap, shampoo, perfume, and toxic cleaning supplies. You can remove them completely, or buy inexpensive child-proof locks to ensure they’re safely locked away.

Design features for a dementia-friendly bathroom

Now that the bathroom is safe, it’s also helpful to create a relaxing atmosphere, to reduce stress and make using the bathroom a pleasant experience. 

Adjusting the bathroom to suit your loved one’s preferences and needs can help it to feel like a safe space. 

Ask them about their preferred time for bathing and whether they prefer a bath, shower, or sponge bath.

The Social Care Institute for Excellence recommends some design features that can help your parent or partner to feel comfortable and relaxed, including:

  • Ensure items like non-slip mats, toilet buttons and seats, and hot and cold taps are in contrasting colours to make them easier to see.
  • Make sure soap is easy to find by using a traditional cake of soap in a contrasting colour to the basin.
  • Offer bubble bath, or clear water with a cake of soap, depending on their bathing preferences.
  • Use open shelving to display items like toothbrush and toothpaste, hair brush, shampoo, and personal care items, so they are easy to find.
  • Ensure the lighting is sufficient to be able to see well, and doesn’t create any shadows that a person with dementia might find frightening. Allow daylight where you can.
  • If your loved one sometimes doesn’t recognise themselves, consider removing or covering mirrors in the bathroom to prevent them from becoming distressed at the ‘stranger’ they see in the mirror.
  • If your shower has glass panels that are reflective, it may be helpful to cover them with towels. If you have a shower curtain, make sure it’s in a contrasting colour, but doesn’t have a busy or confusing pattern.
  • Consider installing a motion sensor that turns the light on at night.
  • Ensure toilet paper is easy to use and within easy reach.

How to help with daily hygiene

If your parent or partner needs help with daily hygiene tasks, Dementia Australia has some recommendations that may help:

  • If incontinence is an issue, ensure your loved one is clean and dry, and that their underwear is changed as needed.
  • If your loved one shaves, try to help them to remember to shave each day. An electric shaver is a safer alternative to a blade, but if they start to cut themselves regularly, it could be time to supervise or offer assistance.
  • If a build-up of ear wax is an issue, talk to your doctor about the best course of action.
  • Encourage your loved one to change their clothes daily, and ensure their dirty washing is taken away and cleaned.
  • You may need to remind your loved one to brush their teeth, or to do it for them. Regular visits to the dentist are important, and it can help to warn the dentist ahead of time that the person has dementia, and may need extra support.
  • Clipping fingernails and toenails can easily be forgotten, so you may want to help, or visit a podiatrist or a nail salon.
  • Washing hair can be stressful for some people with dementia, so try to work with your loved one to find a way that works for them.

Creating a brain-healthy bathroom is more than just a home improvement project; it's an exercise in empathy and understanding. 

By making these thoughtful changes, you can enhance your loved one'ssafety, while also protecting their dignity and independence.

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