Creating a Barrier-Free Bathroom, Part 1



Avoiding falls was something we were warned about by health professionals early and often in the course of Priscilla’s illness. We were cautioned that while she could live for quite a while with a reasonably good quality of life even with a degenerative neurological disease (whichever one she might have), a fall could dramatically and permanently impair her quality of life all at once.  And the single most dangerous place for falls, by far, was the bathroom.

The kind of suction-cup grab bar we used for shower safety at home and away.
The kind of suction-cup grab bar we used for shower safety at home and away.

Early in 2013, when Priscilla was still using a cane, we installed a hand-held spray head so she could maintain her balance better while showering. Shortly afterwards we attached metal grab bars to the bathroom wall for safety getting in and out of the tub. Then we added the tub-side and suction-to-the-wall handles that we got from the medical lending closet (and brought along on our New York trip).

Even with all this safety equipment, that spring she nearly collapsed in the shower and I had to catch her and help her get out.  “I wish God would just take me home all at once!” she lamented—as opposed to one muscle group at a time, as seemed to be happening.

After this incident I helped her in and out every time, and we also got a stool that fit in the tub so she could sit down if her legs felt shaky. (I recorded in my journal that once we got it in place, I lay down in bed with my head spinning with relief!) But one thing was certain: She had to stop climbing over the edge of that tub, with or without my help, or it was only a question of time before she had a serious fall. We needed to make the master bathroom barrier-free as soon as possible, or maybe she would go home all at once.

The floor renovation and trip to New York pushed this project into mid-summer 2013, but at that point we began pursuing it seriously. We asked the advice of a man we knew who did construction. “That’ll involve a lot of different trades,” he said. “Plumbing, tiling, construction, maybe electric. You’d better get a general contractor.” Well, we didn’t know any of those. But we did know a plumber, and we decided to start with him.

We’d met him in an unusual way. Over a year before, we’d taken on the project of repairing a drip in the shower head in our guest bathroom. This had required turning off the house’s main water valve. When we went to turn it back on again, it was jammed stuck. That was the valve on our side of the meter. We then noticed that the valve on the city’s side of the meter was spinning freely—broken in the opposite way! We started calling plumbers from the Yellow Pages and they all gave us the same story: The city would need to come and turn the water off from the street, since “their” valve was stuck open, before any repair of “our” valve, stuck shut, could be attempted.

This was on a Saturday.  But we were able to reach the on-call person at the city’s public works department. “That’s going to be very expensive,” he told us. “You’d have to pay a crew overtime to come out on a weekend.” So we decided to wait it out until Monday. It was spring and a good supply of relatively clean water was coming in at the sump pump, and we could use that to flush the toilets.

But we still needed drinking water. So we brought two empty clear-plastic one-gallon water bottles with us to fill at church the next morning. (Priscilla had saved these, “just in case”!) I was speaking with the pastor after the service when she came walking up, holding the bottles by their handles, one in each hand, having just filled them in the ladies’ room. “What are those for?” he asked. “Is the water that much better here than at your house?” We explained our situation and he said, “There’s a plumber who comes here.” (This was our former church, which thousands attended, so naturally we didn’t know everybody and we hadn’t met this man ourselves.) “I’ll bet he could even help you today, so you don’t have to keep going without water.”

Well, the plumber very graciously did come by that same evening, and he did his best to help us, but in the end we still had to wait for the city crew the next day. When they came and turned off the water, they were very apologetic. “There would have been no charge, even on a weekend,” they insisted. “We feel so badly you were misinformed and had to go without water those extra two days.” The plumber came right after them, fixed the valves, and had our water back within an hour.  We checked the guest bathroom shower head and confirmed that it no longer dripped.

The circumstances had been strange and inconvenient, but under any other ones, we wouldn’t have met this plumber. We’d really hit it off with him, and now, over a year later, he was the first person we wanted to talk to about a bathroom renovation.

To be continued.

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