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Finding a public bathroom for opposite gender parent is difficult

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Many of us are caregivers for parents of the opposite gender. This can create significant problems when we take our loved one out in public and they need to use a bathroom. Men can't take their mothers into the ladies room. Women can't take their dads into the women's room. Unisex bathrooms are the solution, of course, but they can be scarce and most are set up for toddlers, not elders. Businesses need to take note and provide appropriate bathroom accommodations for elders and caregivers.

It was a big enough deal to take my mom out to her appointments. She needed a wheelchair for any distance, but needed a walker for balance if she was going to get out of the chair. My routine was to settle her in her chair and then thread the folded walker through the handles. As I pushed her in the chair, I'd knock magazines off tables and bang up doorways. I felt as if I needed a sign signifying a wide load.

However, those were small problems compared with taking my uncle or my dad to the doctor. My dad had to visit the doctor frequently, as he had many skin cancers to monitor. There were times when it felt as though we spent more time in the dermatologist's waiting room than we did at the nursing home. However, these appointments were important and we kept them.

Dad was not incontinent, but he did have dementia, which interfered with his ability to understand many situations. I, and the nursing home staff, knew that going to the bathroom was an issue during these bus rides and the long waits for the doctor, so they would make sure wore a protective pad. Thus the inevitable conversation would occur between Dad and me as we waited for the doctor.

Dad would say, "I need to go to the bathroom."

I'd answer, "I can't take you to the men's room, and I can't take you into ladies room, but you can just go because you are wearing a protective pad."

Dad would say, "You want me to wet my pants?"

I'd answer, "It's okay, Dad. You are protected. It's the best we can do."

On and on we'd go, with Dad insisting I was being stubborn. I need to add that it was hard enough for me to get used to taking my father to the bathroom--any bathroom--but I'd adjusted to that after I realized he wasn't uncomfortable with me doing so. However, having Dad out in public was a whole different thing.

Elders and their Caregivers: Unisex Bathrooms Needed

One would think a clinic, of all places, would have a unisex bathroom, and some do. However, most unisex bathrooms are meant for opposite sex parents to help their little ones. They have low toilet seats made for children, which makes them nearly impossible, and probably dangerous, for an elder using a wheelchair to use.

Because of this, even the few unisex bathrooms available, while wonderful for families with small children, are of little help to an elder who needs an extra high toilet seat, plus room in the bathroom for a wheelchair. Most of these elders need grab bars or a walker to get up from their chair. They need room to turn. It's a complicated procedure under perfect conditions, and impossible in most of these settings.

Eventually, my father would void into the pad without evening being aware of it and the crisis was, for awhile, over. If we were lucky, we'd get out of the clinic, our bus would arrive and we'd get back to the nursing home before he had to go again.

Elders and Unisex Bathrooms: Clinics and Businesses Need to Listen

Clinic appointments are exhausting enough with out having these battles. However, it's not just clinics where caregivers fight this problem. Many elders would enjoy a trip to a restaurant occasionally, but can't go because they are not able to use a bathroom alone and the caregiver with them can't help. Caregivers need to speak up. I believe there are restaurants that would love to have the senior business.

A change in bathroom accommodations could make going out with an elder a pleasure rather than a chore.