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Bathing Challenges for Seniors and Tips to Prevent Falls

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Getting in and out of the tub can be an arduous task for some older adults, even when their restrooms are equipped with safety equipment to assist them.

University of Michigan’s Medical School’s Division of Geriatric Medicine completed a study of people aged 60 and older, to examine how they climbed in and out of the shower or bathtub. One-third of the 80 study participants had some kind of difficulty getting in and out.

“We found that there are a lot of independently bathing older adults who have trouble or are unsafe getting into and out of the tub or shower stall,” says lead author Susan L. Murphy, ScD, OTR, an occupational therapist and research assistant professor with the University of Michigan Medical School’s Division of Geriatric Medicine, part of the Department of Internal Medicine. The study appeared in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

“For older adults, losing the ability to bathe is associated with having falls, fracturing bones, and even being admitted to a nursing home. It is important that we take steps to help to prevent bathing disability before it occurs,” Murphy says.

One of the biggest issues discovered by researchers through this study, involved glass sliding doors in showers. Three-quarters of study participants who used showers with glass sliding doors, acknowledged that they tried to use the door for stability or balance.

“This is extremely unsafe because shower doors were not designed to support a person’s weight,” Murphy says. “This problem could be easily remedied by educating older adults not to use the door as a support or possibly replacing it with a shower curtain, which was used only rarely by older adults in this study.”

The participants did not have any cognitive impairment. Upon observation of the video recordings used in this study, researchers found that a high number of participants used unsafe features, such as towel bar, glass door, or tub seat to get in and out.

“We think the results from this study demonstrate the need for healthcare professionals to become involved in helping to prevent bathing disability, instead of just treating people in the hospital after they have had a fall in the bathroom,” Murphy says. “While bathrooms in senior housing facilities are designed to be safe, we have found that older adults often do not know the difference between a grab bar and a towel bar. They also have unsafe strategies of getting into and out of their shower or tub. Occupational therapists often see older adults for bathing problems and it would be ideal to intervene with older adults before they start to lose the ability to bathe.”