When was the last time you thought about optimizing furniture seat height? Was it the day your back ached from raking leaves or knee hurt from a strenuous pickle ball match? Or was it when you were embarrassed as a guest struggled to get off your sofa?
Furniture height is a detail most people don’t think about until there’s a problem.
The best or “right” furniture seat height increases comfort and transfer success
A seat can be a chair, sofa, bed, bench, shower chair, or toilet seat. For the benefit of anyone living in or visiting your home, make sure sitting surfaces are at the best height. Sitting down and standing up from a surface that is the “right” height can make a dramatic difference, especially for someone with mobility challenges.
Often only a one or two inch height adjustment, either higher or lower, is needed. This minimal change of seat height can have a significant effect, taking the transfer from difficult or impossible to easier, safer, and possible.
Whether you are the furniture user, a caregiver, or the person being cared for, you can benefit from sitting surfaces that are the “right” height. The furniture user has a better experience because it’s safer, more comfortable, and easier to use.
For a caregiver, it reduces the need to assist and can reduce the chance of injury when helping someone transfer. Optimal furniture seat height allows someone to be safer and more independent, reducing the assistance needed from a caregiver. Adjusting a seat to the best height is a win for all.
Seat height is critical following joint replacement & other surgeries
Elevated seats will enhance recovery and reduce pain and effort following any type of hip, knee, or back surgery. All people planning to have a hip or knee replacement should prepare chairs, sofas, beds, shower chairs, and toilet seats prior to surgery to optimize recovery at home. Generally, seats that are a little higher than average work best especially during the first few weeks following surgery when pain and soreness are the greatest.
For some types of hip replacements, there are precautions after surgery which restrict bending the hip less than 90 degrees. Therefore, having all sitting surfaces slightly higher than average will be needed to prevent violating hip precautions (and possibly dislocating the new hip).
What is the best or correct seat height?
Correct seat height depends on several factors. The two most important factors are a person’s height and the ability to get up and down from a seat safely.
A seat that is too low is most often problematic, but furniture that is too high can also present difficulties.
How to determine the “right” seat height
Ideally, seat height is 18-20 inches from the floor to the top of the seat for someone of average height and ability. A reasonable estimate is to have the seat at knee level. When seated, hips and knees should be close to a 90-degree angle.
Bodies and furniture come in all shapes and sizes. Someone with a longer or shorter torso, or disproportionate arm and leg length, may have more difficulty finding the right fit and seat height. It’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Some trial and error will be needed to find the best and safest seat height.
To determine if a seat should be elevated, try putting a pillow on the chair or sofa to see if it makes the transfer easier. Experiment with pillows of varying height to find the “right” height before starting to make adjustments to the seat itself.
Armrests make standing up & sitting down easier and safer
I always recommend couches and chairs with sturdy and firm armrests for those who have difficulty getting up and down or lower extremity or back surgery. In some cases, armrests can provide enough assistance, even if the sitting surface is lower. But when armrests aren’t enough, there are ways to modify the existing seat height without buying new furniture.
How to increase height of an existing chair
The easiest option to raise a seat that is too low is to add a cushion on top of the seat. Cushions come in a variety of thicknesses and types. A popular type of cushion is one with gel or memory foam; these tend to have better pressure relieving properties and are more comfortable.
Another option for a low chair, is to try a set of risers to elevate the seat a few inches. These are often sold as “bed risers,” but work just as well for most chairs with four legs. They come in a variety of heights, usually from 2 to 8 inches; it’s a platform of plastic, wood, or metal that has a cut out so the leg doesn’t slide off. Usually, a riser of two to three inches is all that’s needed to give a little boost to the average chair. The 8-inch variety is generally used by people who want to raise a bed. This is popular with college students so they can have storage under the bed. Bed height will be discussed in more detail later in this article.
Low recliners can sometimes be placed onto a platform to make them higher. These can be found by searching for recliner or chair platforms, and chair boosters or lifts. Still, the structure of some recliners is not compatible with a base platform because it interferes with the reclining mechanism.
Depending on the chair or sofa construction, you may be able to remove the legs and attach new, longer legs to raise the seat height.
I’ve written a detailed article here about different ways to modify low seats which has more ideas and instructions.
How to increase height of a low toilet
Standard toilets are low. For the benefit of the person using the bathroom and for situations where a caregiver is assisting, you will want to invest in a higher toilet. There are many ways to achieve a taller toilet height. These options range from replacement with a “comfort height” toilet to adding a riser to the current toilet seat to using a bedside commode over the existing toilet. In some situations, armrests, both permanent and removable, or drop-down arms, are helpful.
I’ve written a detailed article here about how toilet height and shape can change your life – sounds funny, but it’s true! There aren’t many things in your home used as much as a toilet. Again, little things make a big difference!
How to determine and create ideal shower chair or bench height
How to raise low shower chairs and benches
Another seat that may need height adjustment is a shower chair or bench. Most freestanding models have adjustable height legs. A seat height that allows a 90-degree angle at the hips and knees is usually most comfortable. But having a seat slightly higher may make it easier to perform the transfer. Always make sure that the seat is at a height where the feet are firmly touching the floor for safety and stability.
Note: If water has gotten into the chair legs resulting in some rust, tools, WD-40, (and a little elbow grease) may be needed to readjust the leg lengths.
If extra assistance is needed, a shower chair with armrests will be beneficial. There are many different types of shower seats/benches: with or without backs, with or without armrests, padded or unpadded, and many different sizes and styles of each. Consider the needs of the individual and the shower/tub size to find the right seat.
How to choose a sturdy shower chair or bench
Keep in mind that larger and broader benches are generally more stable than their “petite” counterparts. If someone is struggling to stand up, choose the sturdier chair that should have more stability. Showers are inherently dangerous and the location of slips & falls – choose the safest products available.
How to determine and create an ideal bed height
What is a good bed height?
I find beds are usually too high or too low and rarely the “right” height. The ideal bed height is about 22-24 inches from floor to top of the mattress. This height usually allows both feet to be on the floor and to push up from the bed.
How to lower a bed that’s too high
Suppose a bed is too tall, and you don’t want to replace the frame with a lower one. In that case, you may be able to reduce the bed height by removing wheels, if present, lowering the box spring, using a narrow profile box spring or thinner mattress, or removing a mattress topper.
If there is no way to lower the bed height, consider a sturdy platform step or step stool to make it easier to climb into the bed. My favorite step stool has a single step with a handle rail built into it. You may see this type of device at doctors’ offices or other medical facilities because they are safer.
How to make a low bed taller
Conversely, if the bed is too low and you don’t want to buy a new bed, thicker mattress or higher profile box spring, there are several options to make the bed higher. Bed risers made of plastic, metal, or wood come in a variety of heights. They are placed under the legs of the bed and come in sizes from 2 to 8 inches.
Sometimes wheels are attached to increase bed height with the added convenience of maneuverability. Just make sure there is a way to lock the wheels or stabilize them, so the bed doesn’t move as someone is getting in or out.
Adding a mattress topper could also help to increase bed height. They usually come in thicknesses of ½ inch to 5 inches. Depending on how cushioned the topper is, it could result in more difficulty moving from lying down to/from sitting up.
In some situations, adding a bed rail to push up from a lower bed is helpful. Make sure that the rail is well attached to provide stability needed to support body weight.
Improve furniture seat height for safety, comfort & ease of use throughout the house
One of the very best things about being a home health Physical Therapist is when I teach a patient or caregiver a simple tip that can dramatically change his or her life. Adjusting furniture height just one or two inches can turn an activity from difficult into doable. Trust me when I say….it’s the little things….the details make all the difference. Now it’s time for you to take a look at your furniture to optimize seat height throughout your home for the safety and comfort of everyone.