Relaxation station

The physical therapeutic benefits of immersive baths, spas and whirlpool jets have been heralded for years. But today, luxurious baths brimming with extras are becoming standard fixtures in many senior living communities. 

Yet even among a highly ambulatory resident population, bathing will always pose challenges to senior living operators who need to be vigilant of the risks of falls and injuries from transfers in slippery environments. To answer those challenges, bathing and lift suppliers are responding with an explosive wave of innovations.

De-institutionalizing bathing

It’s all part of the baby boomer tide that demands hotel-like amenities, as well as the creature comforts of home they or their loved ones are leaving behind. A primary motivator is dignity.

Before building Newbridge on the Charles, a sprawling continuing care senior living community in Boston that includes a 268-bed health care facility, owners surveyed seniors and discovered that private rooms and bathrooms were at the top of their wish lists, said Anne Thomas, executive director. Thomas said designers worked passionately to develop “a home-like environment that feels warms, feels friendly, like a restorative spa-like environment.” 

Pressalit, which manufactures a line of vertical and horizontal adjustable track systems for lifts, sinks and toilets, outfitted the complex’s bathrooms, said Gary David Nowitz, president of Pressalit Care-North America. Pressalit was engaged with the architect early in the design process with “practically everyone from the executive administrator and rehab department to maintenance,” Nowitz added. 

Demands for private baths are growing out of the person-centered care movement, adds Craig Coogan, president of Lift and Transfer Specialists, whose company recently outfitted track systems at Mount San Antonio Gardens in Pomona, CA, a CCRC designed by the Green House project. Among the key features in the community are two stand-alone homes, each with 10 private bedroom-bathrooms. Residents share common areas like open-air kitchens and dining.

Marketing luxury

Not long ago, it was a concept widely foreign in senior living, but now, operators are scrambling to outdo one another and bathrooms are becoming deal-breakers with resident decision-makers like the ubiquitous “oldest daughter.”

Phil Cunningham, business unit director for Invacare Corp., has been in the industry long enough to witness the sea change brought by the wave of Baby Boomers now entering senior living, or sourcing places for loved ones. In short, they’re seeking luxury. “When you think of high-end master baths now in homes, these are what kids are wanting for their parents in places like assisted living,” he says. The issue rings true even more with memory care, where familiar, homelike amenities resonate deeply, he adds.

“Residents in senior living facilities want to feel as ‘at home’ as possible,” says Greg Wells, director of marketing and communications for Bestbath. “Senior living providers want to set themselves apart by providing a living setting that is homey and tastefully decorated. The old adage ‘kitchens and bathrooms sell homes’ can easily be applied to senior living facilities. The care and comfort provided to residents when bathing is what sets many operators apart.”

As Lee Penner, president of Penner Patient Care, observes, “Many times when a facility is replacing a spa, they will do a complete room renovation, including flooring, wall and fixture upgrades to give the room a more appealing look. The spa room becomes a focal point of promoting their facility.”

To many, it’s money well spent. “If this is a new construction, the provider should not cut corners relative to the size of the room,” says David Anderson, national sales manager at Apollo Bathing Systems. “If it is a remodel, providers also should not cut corners relative to upgrading the décor to match the beautiful new spa tub.”

Even for seniors with enough mobility to live independently or in assisted living, navigating a low-level bathtub can still be treacherous. The key design element: the ability for seniors of all acuity levels to get in and out of tubs and showers without falling or tripping.

“Engineers across the globe have put on their thinking caps and come up with an amazingly diverse array of bathtub solutions for individuals experiencing difficulty getting in and out of a standard bathtub,” says Rhonda Bonecutter, founder and CEO of, and a career occupational therapist. “Thanks to the hard work of dozens of creative companies, the global market has been flooded with hundreds of different bathtub models across a range of different bathtub categories.”

Brisk demand, innovation

At the heart of the burgeoning bath business is residents’ fervent desire to do things for themselves.

“People want and expect independence,” says Wells. Even when assistance is needed, the ability to do things for ourselves promotes health, vitality, positive attitudes and longevity in people. The ability to bathe independently or with minimal assistance allows residents in a senior living setting to age in place as long as possible. Once a bathing disability is developed, that person is 90% more likely to escalate to the next level of care.”

That is why innovations like barrier-free showers with safety features like grab bars and attached seats are among the most in-demand systems in the market today, he adds.

Innovation is brisk. What was an extra just a year ago is now standard equipment. But as Anderson says of the bathing industry in general, there is an overriding mission to design and manufacture bath and lift systems that are not only attractive but dependable and safe. “The demand for these things has helped fuel design change among bathing system manufacturers,” he adds. “Virtually every bathing system manufacturer now offers a number of color options where only a few years ago, white was the only option.” Even the design and function of transfer systems have become “more sleek and easier to operate,” while providing increased weight capacities.

What are some of the most popular must-haves today?

Essential features for baths and spas include anti-scald thermoscopic/thermostatic mixing valves, a shower wand to assist with rinsing, and cleaning and disinfecting systems to facilitate infection control, says Anderson. “Features on centralized bathing systems can vary greatly,” he adds. “While assisted living facilities typically try to purchase systems that appear residential, the needs of assisted living residents are greater than those for people still living at home. If an assisted living facility installs a typical walk-in tub designed for home use, it may not have the features necessary for a centralized system.”

Where it really gets interesting are the plethora of “extras” that literally transform bland and sterile bathrooms into exotic spa-like environments. The list is nearly endless. Some bath systems even offer built-in flatscreen TVs and exquisite cabinetry for storage.

Popular options include color upgrades to enhance the décor of the spa room, says Anderson. “Spas come with different entry options and sizes to accommodate any need and any space,” adds Penner. “Colors are also a huge option.”

Anderson adds to the list of extras like digital scales; so-called “air spas” that pump room air through jets in the tub bottom; upgraded infection control systems such as ultraviolet light water purification systems; reservoir systems that can fill and empty tubs more quickly; and upgraded, integral transfer systems in bathtubs.

Other extras, according to Wells: privacy curtains for tubs; “designer touches like recessed tile surrounds in a barrier-free shower”; chromatherapy in walk-in tubs; solid surface finishes on an automated seated showers; non-institutional-like disguising teak towel and grab bars, soap dishes and toilet paper holders.

Still other extras include towel warmers, heated seats and hot air blowers for walk-in tubs, which require the bather to be in the tub during filling and draining.

Stress relief

If operators have learned anything in this new world of luxury showers, spas and whirlpools, it’s ensuring that any system they invest in matches the acuity of their resident population.

“Too often I see providers focus on one design and not consider their resident mix,” Anderson notes. “Likewise, when I speak with assisted living providers at conventions, I ask them to provide me with a profile of their residents now, and then ask them what they expect in five years. That question has led many to change their mind on what system they eventually buy.”