It can be difficult for someone with limited mobility to step over the sides of a standard 14- to 19-inch high bathtub. For them, a walk-in bathtub may be an option. Taller and narrower than standard tubs, walk-in tubs are generally 48 to 60 inches in length, 28 to 36 inches wide, and 38 inches deep. They have watertight doors that are integrated into the tub wall. To access the tub, the user needs to just open the door and then step over a barrier that's usually only about 4 inches high. Some of these tubs have elevated transfer systems that allow you to transition into the tub directly from a wheelchair or walker, or to enter the tub via a lift.
Like standard tubs, walk-in bathtubs are available in a wide range of sizes, styles and materials (a good one will have a steel frame covered by acrylic or fiberglass). Most will have handrails in compliance with the American Disabilities Act and a slip-resistant bottom, and most also will have a seat. Some have spa features with water or air jets that will provide a whirlpool action. Others have controls that will prevent the water from getting too hot.
However, there are some usability issues that those interested in walk-in tub should be aware of. Because the door is located in the wall, the user must get into the tub and close the door before filling it, and they can't exit until the water drains. This can mean a chilly wait -- not to mention the impatience factor for some. Enhanced drain systems are available on some walk-in bathtubs that will empty the tub faster. Because walk-in tubs are generally taller than standard bathtubs, there is more tub to clean.
Walk-in tubs generally cost $2,000 and up, not including installation, and installation can be both pricey and complex, driving the price of a retrofit to $10,000 or more. There are a plethora of vendors of these tubs who have a commercial interest in pushing the specific brands they carry. Most major manufacturers sell walk-in tubs and it may save you some money if you buy the tub and arrange installation separately. Regardless of whether you buy from a specific vendor or choose the option of buying a tub and having it installed by a contractor, be sure to look for reviews and contact references of any vendor or contractor you are considering hiring to be sure the one you chose has the proper expertise and track record for doing this kind of work.
Medicare does not pay for this type of retrofit, nor do most other health insurance policies, but it may be covered under a long-term care policy. The best bet is to check with your insurance provider to see if you are covered in full or in part.
For those who either can't afford a walk-in tub, or simply don't want to deal with that drastic of a bathroom overhaul, there are other options, like ADA-compliant tubs. These are standard-sized tubs that can easily replace an existing alcove-style or drop in tub, but they feature a slip-resistant surface, a lower step-over height, called Comfort Height, and options for adding grab bars, seats and other assistive accessories. Often special, adjustable shower heads are available to make bathing and rinsing easier.
Like other tubs, Comfort Height and ADA-compliant tubs come in a vast selection of styles, installation options and materials. From the simplest alcove-style tub to expensive, highly-customized drop ins, there are unlimited options for ADA-compliant bathtubs. They are even available as deep soak tubs and whirlpool tubs.
One last idea might be a portable walk-in tub. While they're still pricey, $2,000 and up, and you'll need to have a space for them, they don't need to be permanently installed. They hook up to an existing faucet and uses hoses for drainage into a nearby sink or standard tub. Like all of the tubs in this section, portable walk-in tubs have assistive features -- handrails, non-slip bottoms, etc. -- that will enhance user safety and comfort.
Elsewhere in this Buyer's Guide: