How to make a claw-foot tub safer for seniors

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Q: I have a tiny bathroom with a huge claw-foot tub, which is a problem as I work on aging in place. The tub is too big to remove, and financing a major renovation is unrealistic. How can I make the tub safer for a senior?

A: You’re smart to be concerned. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 Americans 65 and older fall each year. Many of these accidents happen in a bathroom.

In any tub, “the biggest risk for seniors is transfer: getting in and out,” said Debbie Chesbrough, co-owner of Accessible Solutions (, a company that specializes in modifying bathrooms, installing wheelchair ramps and making other changes, so homes become more accessible.

Adding safety features to a claw-foot tub isn’t as simple as attaching a grab bar or two to walls, as it is with built-in tubs. With free-standing tubs, the walls are farther away, which makes using wall-mounted safety rails awkward. And if you use the tub to shower, a curtain is probably in the way. Plus, the bowls on claw-foot tubs are usually deeper than in built-ins, and the feet add height. Owners of claw-foot tubs often need to step up nearly 24 inches to get into the tub, compared with 18 inches or less for a built-in tub. And the curve from the walls to the base of a claw-foot tub is more gradual and less angular, so it’s harder to plant your feet on a flat surface as you stand up or climb in or out.

A rail that attaches to the side of the tub might be a solution. But most models are designed only for tubs that are flat on top, with inside and outside tub walls that are roughly parallel to each other. The wall shape matters, because the rails stay in place when you tighten two plates that press against the inside and outside of the tub walls. A claw-foot tub has a single wall and a curved rim, so an accessory rail would need a different attachment system.

An online search showed that the white bathtub rail from Carex works with claw-foot tubs, but the available information is confusing. A call to the company’s customer service number resulted in an assurance that it would fit most claw-foot tubs. But the Carex website shows the rail ($50.37) installed only on tubs with double walls and a flat rim, and illustrations in the installation handout are similar. The Carex website says the rail is suitable for fiberglass tubs, because the wide plates help distribute weight evenly. (Concentrated pressure can crack a fiberglass tub.)

If you can’t find a bathtub rail that works, you can install a vertical support post with a curved grab bar just outside the tub. A version made by Stander ($178.55 at Home Depot) stays in place by putting pressure against the ceiling and the floor, and it works in rooms with flat ceilings seven to 10 feet high. You don’t need to drill any holes in the ceiling or floor; just use a wrench to adjust the tension.

Companies that specialize in creating accessibility products also usually sell transfer benches for bathtubs. These are similar to shower chairs, but they are wider and have one set of legs that fit inside the tub and a second set that rests on the floor next to the tub. The legs are adjustable, so the ones inside the tub can be shorter than the outside legs, allowing the seat to be level.

Adding a seat would make it easier to get in and out, because you could scoot and pivot rather than step up and down. But the seat would block so much tub space that it probably isn’t something you’d want to consider unless there was no other safe way for you to bathe. You’d probably need to switch to a handheld shower wand, because there would be no way to set up a shower curtain to contain the spray from an overhead showerhead.

At that point, you might want to explore whether a bathroom remodel could be done within your budget. Removing a large claw-foot tub is not impossible, even if the only access is a set of narrow, steep stairs. Vintage tubs are made of cast iron, which is brittle, and a coating of porcelain, which shatters like glass. So, if a claw-foot tub can’t be carried out, you can break it into manageable pieces. Cover the tub with a bedspread or other thick cloth, put on safety goggles and protective clothing to shield yourself against flying shards, and go at it with a sledgehammer.

“If we were doing a bathroom remodel and a claw-foot tub couldn’t be removed, we’d bust it up and demolish it,” Chesbrough said. “Claw-foot tubs aren’t safe for seniors, period, unless you’re really spry.”

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to [email protected]. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

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