The Right Height - Toilets

by Bruce Montgomery Ph.D. May 13, 2016

The Right Height - Toilets

Objects at the wrong height can make living for anyone more dangerous. As we age, the proper height for sitting, climbing and reaching can change – and so should the objects that we sit on, climb up or over, and reach for.

This blog focuses on the toilet – an object that we use often but is located in the most dangerous part of the house for seniors – the bathroom. No one can deny that a toilet is an essential part of any home environment. What we fail to realize is that its design is not always comfortable or safe. Especially for seniors, a toilet that is too low to the ground can cause someone to fall if they don't have enough balance or strength. 

Below, we have reposted several tips from an article called “The Process of Elimination” by Delia Treaster on her website, Everyday Ergonomics (no longer available).

Using the toilet is one of the six essential Activities of Daily living (ADLs) that older adults must be able to do in order to live independently. So it stands to reason that we will focus a lot of our fall prevention efforts around these essential activities. For many older adults, the main challenge in using the toilet is the change of posture: from standing to sitting, then back to standing again. Here are some “Ergo Tips” from Delia Treaster.

  • Install grab bars or handrails beside the toilet which the person can use to push herself off the toilet. Or put a grab bar or handrail in front of the toilet so person can use to pull himself upright. The amount of space around the toilet will probably determine where the grab bars go.
  • If there isn't enough space for side bars, consider installing a vertical bar (floor-to-ceiling). The vertical bar should in front of, and to one side of the toilet so it does not block access to the toilet from the front. It should be within easy reach of a person sitting on the toilet. 
  • Whether horizontal or vertical bars are used, they should be mounted securely so the user feels confident that they will support his weight when he pulls up on them.
  • Towel bars are for towels. They are not designed to support someone's weight. The towel bar may break under a heavy load, or it may pull out of the wall. A grab bar, on the other hand, is designed to support weight. Properly installed, it can support several hundred pounds without breaking or breaking free.
  • Never use a towel bar as a grab bar.
  • Never use a grab bar as a towel bar.
  • Keep the grab bar visible and accessible. Do not cover it up. For example, do not put a towel bar above a horizontal grab bar because a towel hanging down can cover up the grab bar. Do not hang anything on a grab bar; do not drape any electrical cords over it. The grab bar should be used only for helping a person stand or walk.
  • Place a foot stool in front of the toilet to raise the knees higher than the level of the hips, thus approximating the squat position that aids pooping. This is a compromise between easier pooping and easier standing. When finished, simply push the foot stool to the side and out of the way, so you can put your feet back on the floor and stand up.
  • Because of constipation and the need to spend more time on the toilet, install a padded toilet seat. The soft cushiony pad will reduce the pressure on the back of the thighs and keep the legs from falling asleep. A bonus for those living in cold climes -- on winter mornings, the padded seat is nowhere as cold as a hard seat. 
  • The toilet paper holder should be located toward the front of the toilet, ahead of the user's shoulders, so that there is no need to turn sideways or reach backwards. Both of these kinds of motions can be difficult for an older person. Anyone with shoulder or back pain, regardless of age, will also appreciate the forward location of the toilet paper holder.

The proper height for a toilet seat? Whatever is a comfortable height for you. Determine the proper height by carefully adding books to a closed toilet seat and sitting then rising. Or use the same height as a chair with a comfortable height. Check Safety In Place for more grab bar ideas for preventing falls and increasing senior home safety.

*Note: Fall prevention efforts can reduce the risk of falling. Caregivers and older homeowners can become knowledgeable about what needs to be done to make homes as fall-proof as possible. Check here often and search for product ideas that can make you safer in your home!

Bruce Montgomery Ph.D.
Bruce Montgomery Ph.D.


Dr. Bruce Montgomery is a licensed building contractor in Michigan and Florida. He is a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist as designated by the National Association of Home Builders. He has also achieved an Executive Certificate in Home Modification from the University of Southern California. He has a wide ranging educational background, including a Master of Science degree in Entomology, with a Master of Science degree in Forestry and a Ph.D. in educational administration.