How to make a clawfoot tub safer for seniors

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Q: I have a tiny bathroom with a huge claw foot tub which poses a problem as I am working on the aging in place. The tub is too big to remove and funding a major renovation is unrealistic. How can I make the tub safer for a senior?

A: You are smart to be worried. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four Americans age 65 and older falls every year. Many of these accidents happen in a bathroom.

In any tub, “the biggest risk seniors face is the transfer: getting in and out,” said Debbie Chesbrough, co-owner of Accessible Solutions (makeyourhomeaccessible.com), a company that specializes in remodeling bathrooms, installing wheelchair ramps, and making other modifications to make homes more accessible.

Adding safety features to a clawfoot tub isn’t as easy as adding a grab bar or two to walls as is the case with built-in tubs. With freestanding tubs, the walls are farther away, making the use of wall-mounted safety rails cumbersome. And if you’re using the tub for a shower, there’s probably a curtain in the way. Also, the pools on clawfoot tubs are usually deeper than on built-in units, and the feet add height. Clawfoot tub owners often have to climb nearly 24 inches to get into the tub, compared to 18 inches or less for a built-in tub. And the curvature from the walls to the bottom of a clawfoot tub is more gradual and less angular, making it more difficult to place your feet on a flat surface when standing up or getting in or out.

A rail that attaches to the side of the tub could be a solution. However, most models are designed only for flat-topped tubs, where the inner and outer walls of the tub are roughly parallel to each other. Wall shape is important because the rails stay in place when you tighten two plates that press against the inside and outside of the tub walls. A clawfoot tub has a single wall and a curved rim, so an accessory rail would require a different mounting system.

An online search revealed that the Carex white bathtub rail works with claw foot tubs, but the information available is confusing. A call to the company’s customer service number resulted in assurances that it would fit most clawfoot tubs. However, the Carex website shows that the rail ($50.37) is only installed on double-walled, flat-rimmed tubs, and the illustrations in the installation brochure are similar. The Carex website states that the rail is suitable for fiberglass tubs as the wide panels help distribute the weight evenly. (Concentrated pressure can crack a fiberglass tub.)

If you can’t find a working bathtub rail, you can install a vertical support post with a curved grab bar just outside the bathtub. A version of Stander ($178.55 at Home Depot) stays in place by applying pressure to the ceiling and floor, and works in rooms with flat ceilings eight to ten feet tall. No need to drill holes in the ceiling or floor; Just use a wrench to adjust the tension.

Companies specializing in the manufacture of accessible products typically also sell bathtub transfer benches. These are similar to shower chairs but are wider and have one set of legs that fit inside the tub and a second set that rests on the floor next to the tub. The legs are adjustable so the legs inside the tub can be shorter than the outside legs so the seat is level.

Adding a seat would make getting in and out easier as you could roll and swivel instead of pedaling up and down. But the seat would take up so much space in the tub that you probably wouldn’t want to think about it unless there wasn’t another safe way for you to bathe. You’d probably have to switch to a handheld shower, as there’s no way to put up a shower curtain to contain the spray from an overhead shower.

At this point, you might want to check if a bathroom makeover could be done within your budget. Removing a large clawfoot tub is not impossible, even if the only access is up a set of narrow, steep stairs. Vintage tubs are made of cast iron, which is brittle, and a coating of porcelain, which shatters like glass. So if a clawfoot tub can’t be done, you can break it down into manageable chunks. Cover the tub with a bedspread or other thick cloth, put on goggles and protective clothing to protect yourself from flying shards, and hit it with a sledgehammer.

“If we were remodeling a bathroom and a clawfoot tub couldn’t be removed, we would break it up and tear it down,” Chesbrough said. “Claw foot tubs aren’t safe for seniors, period, unless you’re really energetic.”

Having a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com. Put “How To” in the subject line, let us know where you live and try to include a photo.

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