Despite what Back to the Future showed us, standing on a toilet doesn't usually work out very well: odds are the intricacies of the flux capacitor will not reveal themselves to you. Even if you do manage to keep your balance, you could still crack the bowl - toilets are designed for seated, evenly distributed weight. And it's not just standing to reach something that endangers: strange as it may seem to us, many from countries that don't have "Western" toilets and instead squat over latrine-style facilities, carry this habit over when using a standard toilet. Yes, the "Don't Stand on the Toilet" signs are for real!
Unless you have a small child, an aging parent, or a loved one with disabilities, it's unlikely that toilet safety has ever crossed your mind. And really, why would it? For many, a trip to the loo is the most mundane of affairs, and discomfort comes only in the form of uncleanliness, bad smells, or the realization that the stall is out of paper. Occasionally, an airplane bathroom might have to be used. Access is presupposed in all cases, and use involves little effort and no planning. The livin' really is easy.
Things change, though - sometimes for the better, other times not. Whether it's having a baby or being called upon to care for another, life can force us to re-examine what we take for granted. When bathrooms become dangerous places full of challenges, reducing the number and severity of those challenges goes a long way in sustaining - or nurturing - independence, and ensuring peace of mind. The toilet is one of the most important places to start.
With very young children, the toilet may as well be another tub, perpetually full of water. That is, it's not something you want them fooling around with, especially unattended. Keeping the bathroom door closed works for a while, but eventually they'll be able to open every door in the house. The bathroom will no doubt be a favorite: there are a lot of shiny surfaces, weird-looking things, and best of all, water! Doorknob covers are available that might keep little Timmy from being able to open the door, as are various childproof locks and latches to keep the room off-limits.
Likewise, the toilet seat lid is another door that should remain closed to little ones. Once toddlers have the strength and know-how to lift it, the aquatic escapades are sure to begin. Too often, though, their lark is your headache (why would anyone want to flush a teddy bear!?). Sure, your plumber will appreciate the business, but wouldn't that money be better spent elsewhere? Look into a latch or lock for the seat lid. It's probably not a bad idea to put one on the tank lid, too: children only get taller, stronger, and more daring.
- Take a look at the base of your toilet: are there exposed bolts? Bolt covers not only clean up the look of the toilet, but protect feet and hands from cuts and scratches that could infect.
- Toilet paper is cheap and plentiful, but that doesn't mean you want it strewn about the house. Toilet paper guards will keep the little ones from the time of their lives, and keep a choking hazard out of their mouths.
- For the young, elderly, and disabled alike, ensuring that the bathroom door can be opened by a caretaker from the outside at all times can be the difference between a minor accident and an emergency.
While keeping a little one from harm in the bathroom is fairly simple - after all, there's only so much they can do/reach, and they're probably never in there alone - things are more complicated with the elderly and disabled. For one, the issue is rarely one of barring access: instead, ease of use and comfort are the main concerns. The range of abilities and comprehension within these groups is so wide that there are no "one size fits all" solutions. An occupational therapist will be your best friend when designing a safe bathroom, so be sure to consult with one if you can. What follows are some basic tips to get things started.
Toilets usually sit lower than your average chair. For those with limited mobility, going those extra few inches can be dangerous, or even insurmountable. And for caretakers, transferring from a wheelchair or other device is easier the lesser the distance. If you're renovating or building a new bathroom, the best option is a wall-hung toilet, which can be installed at the perfect individual height. If you're not starting from scratch, look into a raised seat or seat elevator, which raise the sitting position several inches higher. Another option is a toilet base riser: these are affixed to the base of the toilet bowl, and lift the entire unit.
Grab bars - perhaps the most effective defense against serious falls - are an essential component of the safe bathroom. Around the toilet, they can be indispensable when transferring. Have a toilet paper holder that's fixed to the wall? Replace it with a dual-purpose grab bar, just in case it's reached for during a fall (normal holders are not weight-bearing). Try placing it in an easy to reach location, to avoid any twisting and turning to reach the paper.
Other options around the toilet include safety bars/frames and poles. Safety bars/frames are attached to the toilet itself, and provide a pair of sturdy arms for support. Easily installed, these are not permanent, and fit on most standard toilets. Poles are placed between the floor and ceiling, and can provide additional assistance anywhere in the home, but should not be the sole assistance feature. Commodes are another good idea, giving users an option if they can't make it to the bathroom. Some models even function as a safety frame or raised seat, sliding right over the toilet!
- If possible, leave a 4-foot clearance in front of bathroom fixtures, including the toilet - this will provide room for a wheelchair to turn, and/or for a caretaker to assist.
- Contrasting colors help those with vision difficulties or dementia differentiate and identify important objects. Consider placing a different-colored seat on the toilet.
- Always confirm ADA compliance, and seek professional installation for fixtures and grab bars.
- When selecting grab bars or tension poles, pay special attention to the surface texture, and involve the user as much as possible (some materials and finishes can be slippery or uncomfortable).
- Bidets can be helpful for those with limited mobility, and can help maintain good hygiene. Traditionally available as stand-alone units, there are now toilet seats with the rinse feature built-in, as well as bidet handshowers.
Clearly only the tip of the iceberg, these tips are nonetheless fundamental, and are good first steps in securing your bathroom for safe use. As mentioned, occupational therapists do stuff like this for a living, and can help you put together a safer bathroom. Until that point, you're probably fine just using a bit of common sense. And remember: don't stand on the toilet!