Are Walk-in Tubs Safe for Seniors? (Pros, Cons, and Dangers)

Occupational Therapist
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Walk-in tubs make it possible for many seniors to enjoy bathing more safely. But are they a safe option for all seniors and elderly people?

Walk-in Tubs Safe for Seniors
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Walk-in tubs, in many ways, are a Godsend for folks who are losing their mobility with age but don’t quite want to trade in their bathtimes for showers.

There is something so comforting about being completely submerged in warm water rather than being rained on during our washing routines.

However, when it comes to our beloved seniors, we always want to double-check to ensure a bathroom alternative, especially the bathtub is as safe as it appears.

This article discusses both the benefits and drawbacks of walk-in tubs, provides information about who should NOT use walk-in tubs, and offers alternative solutions to walk-in tubs for seniors who still want to hold on to those beloved bathtub routines. 

Benefits of Walk-in Tubs

Walk-in tubs are designed for users to literally walk into without the hassle of lifting their legs up over the ledge or any other type of threshold. Here are a few more benefits that walk-in tubs provide for seniors:

  • Since the traditional ledge is eliminated, the threshold to step over is much lower, drastically lowering a senior’s risk of losing balance or falls.
  • Many walk-in tubs come equipped with safety features: grab bars or rails, non-slip surfaces, bath benches, etc.
  • Walk-in tubs tend to be deeper than traditional tubs, providing more water coverage for the user. 
  • Walk-in tubs are tightly sealed to prevent water leakage and spillage onto the floor.
  • Walk-in tubs can potentially increase the value of your home, depending on where the home market currently sits.
  • Some walk-in tubs come with perks, including jets, taps, control panels, and showerheads, depending on the model you select.

Drawbacks of Walk-in Tubs

Although walk-in tubs present excellent modifications that some seniors may find beneficial, assessing potential drawbacks is vital before committing to such a hefty purchase. Here are just a few cons to consider:

  • There is no way to open the walk-in tub door without the tub being empty, so seniors risk getting cold if exposed. The user has to wait in the tub naked before and after to allow the tub to fill and drain. Additionally, if the user has to use the toilet, they have to empty the entire tub, exit it, and then restart the whole process after relieving themselves. 
  • Walk-in tubs generally require more water than your average tub, which may ramp up your water bill.
  • Walk-in tubs require professional installation, which can be expensive on top of the equipment cost.
  • Not all homes can physically handle the demands of a walk-in tub. You need a large enough water heater and the proper installation space.
  • If you’re hoping to curb the cost with insurance coverage, Medicare does not cover walk-in tubs since they aren’t considered, by insurance definition, medically necessary. 
Walk-in Tubs Safe for Seniors tips
Listed below are some helpful tips in order for your senior loved one to use a walk-in tub safely.

Tips for Using a Walk-in Tub Safely

Even though walk-in tubs have many safety features that traditional tubs lack, those safety features must be used correctly to prevent loss of balance, falls, or injury.

We’ve created a list of ways for seniors and their loved ones to make the bathroom a safer experience when using a walk-in tub:

  • Have a loved one close by or within earshot if you’re using it for the first time and you’ve had trouble with falls in the past.
  • Place non-slip mats outside the tub and on the floor to prevent slips and falls.
  • Consider installing grab bars outside the tub to steady yourself for drying and dressing purposes.
  • If you need assistance getting in and out of the tub but want to preserve your “me” time, consider installing a fall alarm or fall alert system that you can easily access while in the tub.
  • Keep your towels nearby to prevent getting chilled while the tub is draining.
  • If you have limited vision and are concerned about safely setting your water temperature, ask a loved one to do it or look into water temperature adapters to limit your access to excessively hot water.
  • Once the water drains, dry off completely before exiting the tub to prevent slippage and falls. 
  • Hot showers or hot baths tend to drain users’ energy, exhausting them after their bath routine. If you have a history of reduced stamina and have questionable balance, consider using lukewarm water to preserve your energy for transfers, dressing, and hygiene tasks after the bath and reduce your overall fall risk. 

Who Should NOT Use Walk-in Tubs

Seniors who should avoid walk-in tubs include anyone who has received professional recommendations from their primary physicians to do so.

Typically, this includes anyone with skin-related conditions that should not be submerged underwater or soaked in any body of water for any period of time.

This usually includes individuals with non-healing bedsores, ulcers, or other wounds that are prone to infection or are actively infected.

Similarly, some seniors may be asked to avoid walk-in tubs for temporary periods post-surgery.

Common surgical incisions include those after shoulder surgery, total knee (TKA) surgery, total hips (THA) surgery, other joint surgeries, cardiac or thoracic surgeries, etc. Soaking the incisions too soon can compromise the tissue and lead to infection.

Certain individuals may not be able to use a walk-in tub safely AND independently. These people include seniors with severely limited physical and cognitive capacity, including full-body paralysis or Alzheimer’s disease.

Although it’s entirely possible to use the tub still, they may require 100% assistance from others for transfers, bath tasks, and all bathroom activities once the bathtub tasks are completed. 

Alternatives to a Walk-in Tub

Suppose a walk-in tub is not suitable for your situation due to your unique financial, physical, or cognitive status. In that case, other options are available to get your bath routine done safely. 

Consider any of the following:

Wheelchair Walk-in Tubs

Wheelchair tubs have no threshold, and wider doors that swing outward allow easy transfers from the chair to the bath seat.

Aside from these features, a wheelchair walk-in tub functions very similarly to just about any walk-in tub. The wider doorway also allows transfers from a 3-in-1 commode to a Hoyer lift. 

Bariatric Walk-in Tubs

Bariatric walk-in tubs have wider doorways and seats to accommodate obese individuals who need more bathing space. This is an excellent option for seniors who can’t realistically use a standard walk-in tub.

Walk-in Tubs Safe for Seniors walk-in shower
A walk-in shower may be ideal for seniors with severe cognitive and physical restrictions.

Walk-in Showers

If you would rather transition to a shower set-up due to severe cognitive and physical restrictions, a traditional walk-in shower is excellent for fitting adaptive equipment and allowing for assistance from others.

Supplement a walk-in shower with grab bars, non-slip mats, and shower chairs/shower benches to allow a safe experience. 

Walk-in Showers with no Thresholds

Walk-in showers with no thresholds are commonly used in clinical facilities or nursing homes because they have enough space for 3-in-1 commodes or shower wheelchairs and physical assistance from others without the hassle of thresholds.

In some cases, seniors can opt to have these types of showers installed in their homes. 

Traditional Shower-Tub Combinations with Adaptive Equipment

If you are limited by money or what you can change in your house, you can still safely use a shower-tub combination with the right adaptive equipment.

Some seniors do well with adding shower benches, shower chairs, shower heads, non-slip mats, grab bars, wall soap dispensers, and fall alert systems to make their showering experience safe in a shower-tub combination. 

RELATED: Tubs vs. Showers: Which is Best for seniors and the Elderly?

Summary and Final Recommendations

Walk-in tubs allow seniors to continue bathing without the hassle of climbing over the tub ledge and risking the loss of balance or injurious falls.

These days, walk-in tubs come with all sorts of available perks, including multiple safety features that give seniors and loved ones some ease during bathtime routines. However, it’s essential to understand that not every modification is a one-size-fits-all option.

Walk-in tubs are an expensive commitment, both in equipment and installation.

Seniors must consider some minor inconveniences, including waiting for the tub to completely drain before opening the door and leaving, risking chills from exposure. Another downside is that not all homes are equipped to handle walk-in tubs.

Since walk-in tubs are a serious investment that isn’t covered by health insurance (and aren’t suitable for everyone’s bathing needs), we recommend that seniors take plenty of time to do their research before committing to a purchase.

Assess yourself, your health, your preferences, your finances, your needs, your home, what your loved ones are willing to help with, and your primary physician’s recommendations. 

If you feel that walk-in tubs are not right for you now, consider alternatives to best fit your situation so you can still perform bathing tasks as safely and independently as possible.

It may be something to put on hold for the future, but there are ways to work with what you have now. Feel free to consult an equipment provider or a rehabilitation specialist for more information. 

Photo of author

Meredith Chandler, OTR/L

Meredith has worked as an occupational therapist for 9 years and as a content writer for 6 years. She primarily works with the geriatric population, focusing on their rehabilitative needs and instructing caregivers and family members for home care. Her specialties include ADL training, neurological re-education, functional mobility training, adaptive equipment education, and wheelchair assessment and mobility training. She is a painter, a musician, and a mother of 4 who loves spending time with her family,

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