New age bathrooms

Martin Walker of Methven UK considers the role played by technology and design in the creation of usable bathrooms for the country’s ageing population.

Thanks to better healthcare and advancements in technology, the UK’s population is living longer. While this is of course a positive development, it also presents bathroom manufacturers and designers of new-build social housing with a series of new challenges to address. More than 11 million people are now aged over 65, with one in three of us aged 55 and over, so it is vital that society is prepared to meet the needs of the elderly.

In a recent survey about housing options for the elderly conducted by Shelter, more than 50 per cent of respondents believed their current bathrooms required modification in order to make them more accessible and easy to use. This need for change is also supported by recent NHS statistics, which revealed that it spends £16m each year on treating elderly patients for injuries related to falls in and around baths.

The Foundation for Lifetime Homes and Neighbourhoods identified bathrooms as a key area in need of future-proofed design, to allow for the accommodation of all ages and abilities. Along with urging the bathroom industry – including specifiers, installers and manufacturers – to support inclusive living, there is still much more to be done. To address this, members of the Bathroom Manufacturers Association (BMA) have taken the initiative and are trying to tackle the challenges facing the ageing population and aid members in making their own commercial decisions.

Manufacturers are working hard to develop products that improve safety and accessibility, and help create bathroom spaces which are usable for the duration of a person’s life. Product enhancements such as longer, more ergonomically designed, or even looped lever handles, can make showers and taps easier to operate, making a positive impact on the overall bathroom experience. Similarly, new taps which feature clearer markings and instructions mean that those operating them can identify which is hot and which is cold more easily.

While design is important, so too is the development of new technologies. Often, the needs of the ageing population are dismissed simply as mobility challenges which can be resolved by installing walk-in showers or baths. While providing some assistance, these methods fail to address many of the more serious issues the elderly face in the bathroom.

Showering, for instance, presents a much greater set of challenges. Temperature, flow and spray pattern can all impact upon an older person’s showering experience, and these considerations have helped to shape recent technological advancements in showering products. And, with the rise in multi-generational living, these considerations benefit the whole family, including small children.

So, where possible, specifiers need to be equipped with adequate information about those who will be living in the property and using the bathroom.

When specifying products for the elderly, safety is of paramount importance, as hot water can cause serious injury within seconds. In fact, severe scalding is the second most common cause of household injuries, with 570 serious bath water scald injuries, and more than 20 related deaths, in the UK every year.

Thermostatically controlled products can help here, as they accurately control the temperature of water for showering, bathing and hand-washing. These products contain valves that maintain a pre-set temperature even if the water pressure varies when other appliances are used. Once installed and maintained correctly, they can significantly reduce the risk of scalding in the home.

Complementing this, elderly customers can also benefit from ‘cool-to-touch’ shower bar technology which ensures that the temperature of the valve never exceeds that of the mixed water. Being safe and comfortable to touch, users can rest assured that they won’t scald themselves if they accidentally touch the shower body, especially where shower space is limited.

When specifying for the older customer, installers will find it helpful to refer to products conforming to BuildCert’s TMV scheme, which aims to minimise the risk of scalding.

Elderly users often have sensitive skin as well, so showers with a softer flow can be helpful. Unlike conventional showers that sometimes produce an uncomfortable needle-like spray, specialist products can create an optimum water droplet size, providing greater warmth and coverage and an immersive, full body experience.

The overarching message when looking at the future of bathrooms is that inclusivity and versatility are imperative. Installed products should address the needs of the ageing population without alienating users from a design perspective. The bathroom should be a user friendly, relaxing and, most importantly, safe place to be.

Martin Walker is CEO of Methven UK.