01/18/2012 07:32 am ET Updated Jun 14, 2012

Devices To Keep Seniors In Their Homes

What's one of the main reasons seniors are forced into assisted living or nursing homes? It's the bathtub.

Think about it: You can hire someone to come in and clean Mom's house. You can get services, including Meals on Wheels, to deliver food to her. But there is nobody around to help her get in and out of the bathtub. Bathtubs are a killer, at least when it comes to the idea of independent living.

Bathrooms, literally, are where the elderly fall and can't get up. It's where they slip on wet tile, scald themselves because they get confused about the shower temperature dial, and eventually start to skip bathing altogether rather than deal with the hassle of swinging a leg over a 23-inch wall to get in and out of the tub. And showers? They are crash-and-burn city, much like the tub. Just a two-inch shower basin lip is going to bring a wheelchair to a screeching halt.

While home designers have been busy concocting outdoor kitchens and backyard living rooms, bathtub design has remained virtually unchanged since the early 1700s; showers haven't changed much since the early 1800s unless you count the solar-heated ones that campers sling over a tree branch, and we're not counting them as a likely aid to keep the nursing home at bay.

But like all things boomer, it just took enough of us to have the same problem before someone came up with a clever solution for it. So we now are in the (relative) infancy stage of walk-in bathtubs and showers with seats. While I remember my mother keeping a plastic folding chair in the shower so she could sit while she shaved her legs, shower chairs are now a bit more thoughtfully designed. Some swivel so that post shower, exiting the chair on to a dry floor mat is possible. Shower grip rails can also be installed to ease the hoist.

The big debate over walk-in tubs is whether the door should swing inward or outward -- the belly button debate in a way. Outward door supporters say that water pressure on the door traps you inside the tub in an emergency, so better to get one that opens outward. Inward door advocates say an exit emergency is rare compared to the every-day difficulty of outward opening doors require that you step away from your target (the target being the tub).

Either way, the tub has rails to help you get up from sitting position.

What I don't understand is why we haven't adopted the European small hotel model for bathrooms, the one where the entire room becomes the shower and after forgetting to put the toilet paper outside the room once or twice, you get the knack of just drenching what you need drenched. The room has a drain in the middle and afterward, you just use your towel to mop up the mess. Not working for you, eh?

But boomers' desire to stay in their homes and have their parents stay in theirs for as long as possible has spawned a cottage industry. The folks at Kite and Rocket Research specialize in inventing and manufacturing products precisely to stave off the nursing home day of reckoning. Company founder Robert Victor is currently working on a device tentatively called the Standing Lift that helps lift people who have fallen to the floor back to their feet. The person on the ground sits on the base of this device while another person winds a small mechanical wheel to lift them up off of the floor -- back into a standing position.

This, says Victor, avoids the need to call a relative or ambulance for help just to get up. Can we skip the 10,000 comments saying if an elderly person falls to the ground, it's probably not such a bad idea that he gets checked over anyway, even if he does manage to get back on his feet?

Falls are the second-leading cause of unintentional injury deaths and the most common cause of injuries and of hospital admissions for trauma. One of every three adults 65 or older suffers a fall each year. And of those who fall, two thirds fall again within six months. The majority of falls occur in the home -- that very same home we all want to stay in.