Lighting for the Aging Eye
March 19, 2012 - 1:10pm
With a growing older population hoping to stay in their homes as they age, designers are tasked with making spaces - and their lighting - more senior-friendly.

As Baby Boomers approach retirement age, there has been heightened interest in the idea of “aging in place,” or adjusting a home to make it suitable for residents as their mobility and dexterity may decrease.

“It’s about what we can do to make it easier for people who are growing older, as far as making a home low maintenance and comfortable,” says Alesha E. Churba, Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS).

Baby Boomers also have an increased sense of independence, and do not like the options their parents had, says Eunice Noell-Waggoner, President of the Center of Design for an Aging Society.

“The Baby Boomer generation has now gone through trying to help their parents and moving them into assisted living or nursing homes, and what they see is that they do not want any part of that,” Noell-Waggoner says. “Baby Boomers are also a little healthier than their parents were, so they have the physical and mental ability to stay in place.”

A survey done earlier this year by The Hartford Financial Services Group and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) AgeLab found that, while 96 percent of people were aware of changes they could make to their current home to make it more comfortable as they age, only 26 percent have actually made those changes.

“The Boomers have new demands for old age,” said Joseph F. Coughlin, Ph.D., Director of the MIT AgeLab, in a statement. “While they may choose to stay in the homes where they have their memories, marriages and mortgages, this will not be their parents' retirement. It’s important that Boomers think about their current living situation today and ask themselves: Is their home equipped to be a home for a lifetime?”

While much of this talk centers on home design elements like single-floor living, counter heights and handrails, lighting is also a major consideration.

The primary thing to keep in mind, according to Churba, is that older people need more light to see.

“As you get older, the lens in your eye is harder and also starts to yellow with age, like a newspaper,” Churba says. “Your pupils also get smaller, so what once was adequate lighting when you were younger isn’t adequate anymore.”

Noell-Waggoner agrees, pointing out that the new lighting handbook from the Illuminating Engineering Society requires twice as much light on a work counter for ages 65 and older compared to the 25 to 65 age group.

Noell-Waggoner recommends a house with plenty of windows and skylights in order to capitalize on daylight. In addition to giving seniors enough light to read or work by, being exposed to higher levels of natural light also improves sleeping habits and reduces likelihood of depression. Homeowners can also maximize available daylight by switching to sheer window coverings and painting the walls a lighter color so that they’ll reflect more light.

Sheer window coverings are also helpful in reducing glare, which is also a big issue, as aging eyes can’t adjust as quickly to changing light levels. Glare can also be reduced by using softer or indirect light and less-reflective surfaces.

Task lights are also increasingly important as people get older. This is especially pertinent if the residents have any hobbies that require attention to detail, such as sewing, puzzles or woodworking. More output often means the lights themselves must be larger, Noell-Waggoner says.

“A lot of time, task lights are so big and not adjustable,” she says. “My hope is with the LEDs coming out, we’ll get better task lights that give off more light from a better task light head. These types of lights are mostly made for the office environment, but I want one for old people.”

Churba also recommends having a switch by every room entrance to prevent tripping in the dark while looking for the light switch. She also advocates installing switches lower (at 42 inches instead of 48) and outlets higher (at 18 inches instead of 12) to make them easier to reach.

Task lighting is also helpful in the kitchen, says Ben Pfeiffer, President and founder of Under-cabinet lighting is growing in popularity and he’s seen a lot of houses being retrofitted with fluorescents or LEDs.

“The bonus of LEDs is that it means less changing light bulbs, less climbing up on a ladder and fewer falls,” Pfeiffer says.

Churba also recommends choosing warmer lighting for the kitchen in particular.

“A lot of times as people get older, they lose their appetite,” Churba says. “Colder, bluer light tends to make food look less appetizing.”

Bedrooms and Bathrooms

A major concern in the bedroom is keeping seniors from falling if they get up in the middle of the night. There are several solutions: Churba recommends using night-lights or installing a light switch near the bed.

“One huge thing that I recommend throughout the house is rocker light switches with a backlight or night-light in them, so that if you’re in the dark, you can find the light switch easily,” she says.

Noell-Waggoner recommends a low-level light that’s activated by a motion sensor, so it will turn on automatically when someone gets out of bed. This also prevents people from being blinded when a bright light turns on or off at night because older eyes can’t adjust as quickly.

One area that is often overlooked is the closet. Churba says older eyes need more light to be able to distinguish between colors, so brighter lights are best in the closet and laundry room.

In the bathroom, too, task lighting is key.

”Instead of just a single source above the mirror, it’s better to have a light on either side because it helps light up their face better and illuminate the room more,” Pfeiffer says.

Churba agrees, adding that overhead light creates shadows under the chin, which can make shaving difficult as facial hair turns white or gray and becomes harder to see.

Outdoor Lighting

Steps and walkways are the main areas to keep in mind in regards to exterior lighting.

"Outdoor lighting is important not just for seeing but also for safety,” Churba says. “At the entry, you don’t want the lights to be so bright that you’re blinded, but you do need to see the door locks. Lighting that projects downward instead of outward is better because it’s lighting the ground that you’re walking on — falling is such a concern.”

Outdoor lights that turn on automatically are particularly helpful. Churba recommends light with motion sensors, while Pfeiffer suggests solar-powered step lights because they don’t have to be plugged in.

When it comes to marketing these types of changes to the Baby Boomer generation, Churba and Noell-Waggoner agree that education is key.

“Technology keeps getting better, but some of my older clientele are very fearful of the new technology and don’t trust it,” Churba says. “So, we have to reassure them and educate them on why it’s important to do these things.”

“It would be so helpful if there were light vignettes to see the different lighting options so they could try out different fixtures and see what lighting type would work for them,” Noell-Waggoner says.

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