Age in place comfortably with simple home improvements

If you plan on remaining in your home as long as possible -- and most Americans do, according to the AARP -- you've probably considered the possibility that someday you'll have trouble climbing stairs. So when remodeling or choosing a new home, you may look for a first-floor laundry room and bathroom to make your future life easier and potentially safer.

But have you thought about the shower? About the furniture? About lighting? About the grab bars you may not need yet, but may want to install someday? About throw rugs?

Those are among the factors Minneapolis-based interior designer Mary Dworsky reminds people to consider when designing or choosing a home in which they can live comfortably into old age.

In addition to the typical designer focus on style and convenience improvements, Dworsky recommends features to accommodate aging in place. ("Creating beautiful interiors for the way you live today and tomorrow" is the way she describes her business, at www.marydworskyid.com.)

"I'm now 65, so I'm a prime candidate for this myself," Dworsky said. "Most of my clients are my age or older."

Among them are Ronnie Greenberg and her husband, Larry, 88 and 87, respectively, who were in the process of moving from their St. Louis Park, Minn., home of 60 years into an apartment. They deliberately chose a place that's well-designed for older people, with wide doorways, a stall shower and underground parking to eliminate snow-shoveling hassles.

"The doorways are wide enough to get a walker through if we need to, or a wheelchair if the time comes," Ronnie said. "It really takes into consideration our needs."

Here are more of Dworsky's tips:

-- Entryway. Provide plenty of light, both inside and outside, with easily accessible switches. Place a ledge, shelf or chair on which to set items -- again, both inside and outside. A chair inside also helps with shoe and boot removal. Use slip-resistant flooring or rugs.

-- Living room. "Lighting is critical," Dworsky said. "We need three times more light in our 60s to see what we saw in our 20s. In our 80s, we need five times as much."

Cover windows with sheer materials to cut glare while maximizing outdoor light. Supplement with table and floor lamps, recessed ceiling lights, sconces, mirrors to reflect existing light. Opt for brighter colors; pastels can look washed out to aging eyes, Dworsky said.

Choose furniture that's easy to get up and out of, such as chairs with sturdy arms. Leave space to move comfortably between furniture pieces.

-- Kitchen. Minimize features that require bending and heavy lifting. Raise the dishwasher 12 inches off the floor, or install a dishwasher drawer, which offers water savings as well as convenience over the traditional style. Look for refrigerators with freezers at the bottom and pullout drawers. Raise the oven, and locate a sturdy shelf beneath it for setting hot pans.

Vary counter heights to accommodate standing and sitting. Avoid bar-stool seating, which can be too high for those with physical limitations. If your kitchen has a center island, consider adding a shelf with table-height seating.

-- Bathroom. Grab bars now come in sturdy but stylish designs. If you're working on your bathroom but don't need grab bars installed, plan ahead by reinforcing the walls where they would go. "I ask my clients, 'Where would you need a grab bar?' That's where we'll put it," she said.

Consider a "comfort height" toilet or wall-hung toilet (the latter requires in-wall plumbing). Choose a no-threshold or low-threshold shower with a door that's at least 36 inches wide; special brackets let the door open all the way to widen the space.

"You want some sort of seating in the shower, whether it's removable or flip-down," Dworsky said. "And always a hand-held shower, in case you're ever not able to stand up."

(Contact Katy Read at katy.read@startribune.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com)