As humans, our brains make sense of the world by collecting and interpreting information from the environment. And we collect this information through our seven senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, vestibular, and proprioception. How we interpret this information directly impacts our behaviour, including our ability to perform the everyday activities that bring meaning and purpose to our everyday lives – including those we perform in the bathroom.
Given the importance of our senses to the performance of everyday tasks, occupational therapists must consider not only people’s physical needs when designing bathroom adaptations but also the older or disabled person’s sensory needs. So in this blog, we discuss some design considerations around the four senses of sight, touch, hearing and smell. While not an exhaustive list, the following considerations are a helpful reminder of how incorporating sensory needs in the design of bathroom environments can enhance older and disabled people’s independence.
Design hints and tips
Tip 1: When designing a bathroom layout, it is vital to optimise the lighting around those areas where the older or disabled person needs to see well to perform specific tasks such as shaving or putting on make-up. As well as task lighting, it is important to ensure that the general lighting is sufficient to help people safely navigate the environment.
Tip 2: For people with dementia, it is essential to think about preventing shadows and not to choose ‘busy’ patterns in wall and floor coverings, as these can cause the person to misinterpret what they see, resulting in distress and confusion. So avoid using sparkly or busy patterns on floor and wall surfaces and consider how natural and electrical lighting can be controlled to avoid the issues around shadows from arising.
Tip 3: Where a person has a visual impairment, consider recommending controls on fixtures and fittings that can be easily interpreted or interpreted through other senses. For example, choose a shower unit with large digital displays or controls with additional tactile information that the person can ‘read’ and interpret through touch.
Tip 4: Different textures can provide those people with reduced tactile sensation with better haptic feedback when using different fixtures and fittings in the bathroom, for example, a textured grabrail. However, some people with particular sensory needs can be sensitive to textures, triggering negative physical and behavioural responses. Therefore, it is essential to consider the choice of materials for flooring, wall surfaces and textures used in fixtures and fittings to prevent this negative behavioural response.
Tip 5: Where an individual may have lost the sensory awareness of temperature, it is vital to prevent scolds and burns by reducing the risk of the person coming in contact with hot surfaces. This can be achieved by carefully considering the type and placement of heat sources, such as low surface temperature radiators. It may also be necessary to consider using temperature limiters on hot water taps and showers.
Tip 6: When bathing, many people use the relaxing properties generated from odours produced by candles or defuses. However, some people’s ability to perform everyday activities can be negatively affected by the natural smells produced from bodily odours or chemical smells produced from products used during personal care activities, such as deodorants. For older and disabled people sensitive to odours, ensuring that the bathroom design includes sufficient natural and mechanical ventilation is important. This will also help reduce the moisture in the bathroom, making surfaces on fixtures and fittings, such as grab rails, less slippery to hold.
Tip 7: Acoustics in a bathroom can be a particular problem for those older and disabled people sensitive to sound. This issue arises because bathrooms usually contain fixtures and fittings with hard surfaces, and noise tends to reverberate off these surfaces. In other rooms in the home, it is easy to use soft furnishings such as cushions and curtains to manage the issue. So when you support a bathroom design for an individual sensitive to sound, it is important to carefully consider the materials for the walls and flooring as this may help reduce some of the problems. And although it is not easy to incorporate soft furnishings such as cushions in bathrooms, towels and bathrobes can fulfil a similar function.
This blog has considered a few practical bathroom design considerations for older and disabled people with sensory needs. More information about design around sensory needs can be found in the additional resources below.
- Housing LIN: Design and lighting – Sight Loss, Home and the Built Environment – Topics – Resources – Housing LIN
- Pocklington Trust: Lighting in and around the home – Thomas Pocklington Trust (pocklington-trust.org.uk)
- Stirling Dementia Services Development Centre Design – Dementia Services Development Centre (stir.ac.uk)
- Sensory needs of Autistic People Supporting autistic people flourishing at home and beyond: considering and meeting the sensory needs of autistic people in housing – NDTi
- A guide for children with behaviours of concern/challenge Adaptations for Behaviours that Challenge (foundations.uk.com)