Smart Bathroom Features for Older Adults

Updated: September 10, 2021. Authors:

Smart Bathroom Features

Photo by Sidekix Media on Unsplash

 

As part of our "Smart Home Features for Older Adults" series, we are sharing some specific recipes and "kit lists" for individual smart home features — organized on a "room by room" basis.

 

Overview

This article covers several smart bathroom features that author Frank Engelman has found useful for family members or friends — and that focus on "challenges" of particular relevance to people as they age.

Here are the key smart bathroom features Frank has implemented (detailed recipes and "kit lists" included below):

  • automatic lighting;
  • automatic toilet flushing;
  • reminders to wash hands and automatic faucet and soap dispensing;
  • a smart shower head that tells you water temperature and helps avoid scalding;
  • orienting verbal prompts for people with cognition issues;
  • an indicator that alerts you if someone left the toilet seat up when you go to the bathroom in the dark.

 

See the Smart Bathroom in Action

Watch this video to see some of the smart bathroom features Frank has implemented.

 

 

Who Should Read This and Why?

The Smart Home Features for Older Adults series is for anyone who is an older adult, or cares for an older adult, and who likes the idea that some "intelligent home features" might improve quality of life in various ways, and help minimize some of the challenges that come with growing older.

This particular article focuses on the bathroom. For background and the bigger picture, see Smart Home for Seniors: What and Why?.

  • To understand some of the "challenges" smart bathroom features can address, read the section on "The Challenges".
     
  • To see specific detailed recipes (and "kit lists") for DIY implementations, see "The Recipes & Kit Lists" section.

 

Things to Note

  • Frank's focus is on adding modest "smarthome features" to an existing room, without major construction or large financial outlays. That is what these specific "recipes" and "kits" are designed to help you accomplish.
     
  • Frank likes Alexa (a voice enabled artificial intelligence (AI) made by Amazon), and most of these recipes rely on Alexa as the "brain" that enables the smart solutions to work, and makes a simple voice interface possible. 
     
  • You could address the Challenges we describe with some significant renovations and expensive products. If you want to do that, use this article to learn about the challenges, but consult a designer or an architect about the remodel itself.
     
  • Frank's "recipes" assume a certain amount of DIY capability and tech-savvy-ness on the part of whoever installs these smart bathroom features. However, the recipes assume that the older adult need have no technical capabilities at all.

Disclaimer: This work was not sponsored by Amazon or any other vendor. If you use the outgoing links to vendors in our "kits" and recipes, we may in some cases earn a small commission. 

 

Table of Contents

 

 

 

The Challenges

Bathrooms are near the top of any list of "renovations that make a home safer for older adults", and such lists usually include physical improvements like grab bars and non-slip surfaces, and perhaps an elevated toilet.

This article goes beyond these good ideas and focuses on "smart" features that can be added, and which go beyond any "physical" improvements you might decide to make.

 

Lighting

Having good bright lighting is very important, because many older adults have less good night vision than when they were younger, and less good balance, and thus are likely to trip, bang in to things, or fall if they try and walk around the house in the dark.

So, fumbling for the light switch when you need to go to the bathroom at night, or walking across a darkened room to find the light, are bad ideas if they can be avoided.

Luckily, with a simple smart home feature you can!

If you want to implement automatic bathroom lighting, scroll down to the "Recipes and Kit Lists" section.

 

Cognition Issues and Forgetfulness

We think "smart" features can be especially appropriate in situations where an older adult starts to become forgetful, or enters the early stages of cognitive impairment. 

The idea that a smart home can help in cases of memory impairment or dementia is not a new one. However recent advances make it much more realistic to incorporate such ideas into an individual's home.

The key building blocks are:

  • the general availability of voice assistants such as Alexa and retrofit devices for switches, lights, and even toilet-flushers; and
  • the ability of Alexa to serve as a proactive controller and friendly reminder of daily activities.

This will be a recurring theme as we move from room to room in this Smart Home Features for Older Adults series. Below are some specific challenges that have the bathroom as their location.

 

Flushing & Hand Washing

One of the Tech-enhanced Life readers sent in this problem. Here is what she wrote.

"My mother (with dementia) wakes up often in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and forgets to wash her hands/flush the toilet. She often forgets during the day as well."

She went on to say:

"I am sensitive to sounds and her movements so I wake up and shout "make sure you wash your hands." But this just can't go on. I just worry about her hygiene. 

I do have a small mat that I purchased on Amazon that will set off an annoyingly loud alarm if she were to stand on it. I am wishing that instead of the annoyingly loud alarm, it would say "wash your hands" or had some programmable voice command option. Do things like this exist? Sensors with voice activated alarms that are programmable?

I mean, I can record myself saying the commands, I just need something to trigger them. :)  

I feel like something probably exists and I am just overlooking it. 

Claudia"

This motivated Frank to work on a "solution", which you can read about in the "Recipes and Kits" section, below.

 

Shower Water Temperature

A number of Frank's friends and relations live in senior living communities around the USA. Here is the request one of them sent him on behalf of members of her community.

"We want a solution that helps manage water temperature for the shower."

She went on to say:

"In particular, we want to:

  • avoid being accidentally scalded if we hop in the shower when it is set too "hot";
  • have a simple way to know when the shower water has warmed up enough so we can hop in, without waiting too long and wasting water, and without needing to be continually reaching in and checking by hand."

This motivated Frank to work on a "solution", which you can read about in the "Recipes and Kits" section, below. It has proven popular in the community for which he developed it.

 

Leaving The Toilet Seat Up

Another of Frank's relatives asked him if he could come up with a solution for her husband "leaving the toilet seat up". As Frank describes it: "My brother-in-law forgets to put the toilet seat down causing my sister to almost fall in once during the night".

You can see a solution to that below in the Recipe & Kit List section too.  

 

 

 

The Recipes & Kits

The following Recipes (& Kits) are authored by Frank Engelman.

 

Automatic Bathroom Lighting

I (Frank) have an entire article on "Automating a Parent's Lights", in which I describe in gory detail several different approaches (with specific products).

For smart bathroom lighting, here is the basic idea.

  1. Install a motion detector that can sense when you or your friend or family member "enters the bathroom". [You can adapt for whatever action you would like to use to trigger the lights].
  2. Replace existing light bulbs with light bulbs that can be controlled by Alexa (no electrician required).
  3. Add an Alexa in the bathroom to act as the local "controller" and speak reminders.
  4. Create an Alexa "Routine" to control when the lights come on and whether other things happen as well, such as Alexa saying something appropriate.
  • To see the exact products we used, see our "Smart Bathroom Kit List".
  • My preference is to use a product that incorporates both the Alexa and the motion sensor into a single package. It's called an (Echo Flex + Motion Sensor) and you can see it in the image below, and find exact details and a link to where you can buy it in the Smart Bathroom Kit List above.

 

Mounting the Alexa Echo Flex + Motion Sensor Package

Below are two different ways we have tried mounting the motion sensor + Alexa package.

Both worked well, and the right choice depends on the exact geometry of your bathroom. The (Alexa + motion sensor) is the white rectangular device plugged into the power outlet. It is actually two separate products connected together. The main "brain" is an Echo Flex, and the extra attached module is the motion sensor.

 

bathroom motion sensor
Caption: Here are some possible mounting angles for the Echo Flex (motion sensor + Alexa).

 

Separate Motion Sensor (Alternate Implementation)

If you can’t find a suitable plugin location for the Echo Flex with the attached motion sensor, I’d suggest this battery-operated motion sensor that can be mounted anywhere. I found that mounting it near the lighting over the mirror is a great location. I used a flat magnet with a 3M sticker in this case (see Kit List for details).

 

alternate motion sensor

Caption: simple battery operated motion sensor

 

If you choose to use the stand alone motion sensor, there are a couple of things to note:

  • The motion sensor needs to be WiFi enabled so that the Alexa can recognize it and detect when it senses motion — and thus trigger a routine. 
  • The Alexa (it can still be an Echo Flex) no longer needs to be in such an obvious position. It can be tucked away on a shelf, so long as you can still hear it clearly.

 

Alexa Routines

The key step that ties all this together is a simple Alexa Routine that detects when the motion sensor "fires", and causes Alexa to send out a command to the lights.

  • The basics of Alexa Routines are covered in this article by Frank: Make Alexa Proactive: Create Routines
  • See the Kit List for a sample Routine to get you started. 
  • You can adjust the routine to get the right delays and the right spoken prompts.

 

Other Approaches

I (Frank) prefer this DIY approach and minimal "renovations". There are more complex approaches that involve electricians.

But, while there are wired-in motion sensor switches for the bathroom to control the lights, the sensor may not be located in a proper location for motion detection, as well as not offering time-of-day lighting levels. Also, replacing an electrical switch takes some skills or payment to an electrician. 

 

Automatic Flushing & Hand Washing

In response to the reader's question (above) about toilet flushing, hand washing, and memory, I wondered:

Is there a low-cost way to make my bathroom smarter for my loved one who is starting to have memory difficulties?

The video near the top of this page shows you what I implemented.

It includes automatic flushing, reminders, and automated hand washing support.

See the detailed recipe below. For specific products, see the Kit List.

 

The Autoflusher

Here is the toilet autoflusher installed in my bathroom.

auto flusher

Caption: Toilet Autoflusher

I have tested this model of auto-flusher on my toilet that has top-mounted mechanical push buttons. It has been working great. They also make a model for the side-handle flapper-valve type of toilet, but I don’t have that type of toilet to use in a test. However, it does use the same controller.

 

Automatic Hand Washing

Here is my automatic hand washing and soap dispensing set up. You can see it in action in the video at top of the page.

If the person you want to help would enjoy it, you can add this touchless water faucet and touchless soap dispenser.

Along with the gentle, audible reminders, it could make hand washing fun.

 

automatic hand washing fixture

Caption: Touchless Faucet and Soap Dispenser.
 

The way I implemented this is as follows.

  • I use the motion sensor (discussed above in the lighting section) to start the Alexa Routine.
  • I use a single Routine to both turn on the lights, then wait for a fixed amount of time (that I can program), and then speak a reminder to wash your hands etc.
  • It would be better if a separate sensor triggers when the toilet flushes and starts the "reminder" interaction. I am still working on that. :)
  • To see the exact products we used, see our "Smart Bathroom Kit List".

 

Other Approaches

We’ve all seen those stories and TV ads for those high-end executive smart bathrooms from Kohler & Toto that feature smart toilets and showers that cost thousands of dollars. These devices respond to your requests via touch, movement, or even your voice. Temperature-controlled showers and auto-flush toilets can be yours if you are willing to pay for the devices and installation costs.

 

Shower Water Temperature Management

If you are concerned about someone getting into the shower when the water is too cold or getting too hot while she is in the shower, I use a simple screw-on replacement shower head that indicates temperature.

I developed this after being asked for it by my relative who lives in a senior living community and felt a number of her friends would benefit.

 

Watch the Automatic Temperature Display Shower Head in Action

 

Please note, it does NOT control the temperature, as that would take a costly plumbing change to add a motorized valve and controller.

However, I found an anti-scald adapter that  I have NOT tested, as my water doesn’t get hot enough to trigger it. We included the anti-scald detector in the Kit List too.

 

Leaving The Toilet Seat Up

The solution to this problem is written up on a different page. It involves a motion sensor and a red/green light that tells you whether the seat is up or not when you enter the bathroom at night.

 

 

 

DIY Tips & Implementation Suggestions

While these smart features can help a lot, the older adult in question might not always appreciate them before seeing them in action. So, it is important to think about how to introduce them.

 

Frank's Implementation Suggestions

Here are some ideas I have found useful.

I’d like to suggest the way to go about this is in stages. Start with what your loved one would enjoy and then keep expanding on that.

  • One of the easiest things to do that provides enjoyment is motion-controlled bathroom lighting. If they don’t see the need for it at first, they will experience it when they see that the bathroom lights don’t come on at FULL BRIGHTNESS during a nocturnal visit.
  • Once you have the automated lighting working, if your loved one needs some reminders, look at some ideas for gentle, audible reminders to “flush the toilet” and “wash your hands”. If that is inappropriate, consider some other reminders of time, date, weather, or next calendar appointment. You can adjust the information presented and may want to use this for your own use as a “daily briefing” as part of your morning routine. You can schedule what times this Routine runs and how often it plays during a bathroom visit.

I suggest that you first try some of these solutions in your own bathroom. It will give you valuable experience when installing them at your mom’s house. You may even decide to keep some for yourself! The most important thing to do is get the lighting motion sensor working with appropriate delays for a gentle, audible greeting and reminders.

Things to Note:

  • If your mom can’t hear the tiny speaker in the Echo Flex, consider adding an Echo Dot. The one with a clock and a stand is an excellent addition.
  • If she is very hard of hearing, consider an Echo Show 5 or Echo Show 8 with the mechanical lens cover taped over for privacy.
  • If you enable “Alexa Captions” under Settings- Accessibility, the Alexa Routine reminder text will be displayed.

 

Learn More

 

 

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Reader Comments: "Smart Bathroom Features for Older Adults"

 

from Judith Kerman (unverified) at August 02, 2021

I’m astonished that your list does not include ways to help get off the toilet. This has even been the subject of a “Grace & Frankie” sequence of episodes, and it is one of the major topics of conversation on disability Facebook pages. In addition to grab bars and ADA compliant toilet, I bought an excellent electric seat lifter that helps me to stand. Suggest getting off the toilet and shower safety as separate topics.

 

from Judith Kerman (unverified) at August 02, 2021

OK, the topic is “smart” bathrooms, but toilet seat lifters are new tech, even if not smart.

 

from faengelm (member) at August 03, 2021

Hello Judith,

Thank you for that suggestion, and we will add it to the list of things to explore in the future. 

In the meantime, perhaps you would like to share your own experiences with this type of product here in the comments so others can benefit?”

 

 

from Judith Kerman (unverified) at August 05, 2021

I have had arthritic knees and neurological issues that make it impossible to get up from a regular chair or toilet without strong and properly placed grab bars. Hard, even then. I bought a LiftSeat powered toilet seat, and like it very much. It sits on legs on either side of the toilet and plugs in. Hydraulic cylinders lift the seat to any height within its range, tilting forward slightly as it rises. I store the wired control on my toilet paper roller. It can be ordered with a high end bidet, and you can put a different toilet seat on if you don’t like the one it comes with. Very sturdy and well designed, much less clunky than the word “hydraulics” might suggest. I would provide a photo if I could. I bought it at LiftSeat.com. There are other brands, but this seemed the best balance of features and price.

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Last Updated: September 10, 2021.