Lighting the Way for Older Adults
March 7, 2012 - 4:25pm

Lighting retailers might think this is a pretty-doom-and-gloom time as the housing market continues to languish. But there is a bright spot on the horizon thanks to the Baby Boomers.

Defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, the Baby Boom Generation is 78 million people strong, and all of them are going to need new types of lighting as they age.

According to experts, our eyes are like onions, and each year another layer of cells forms on top of our lenses. As our lenses get thicker, it takes more light to get to the back of the retina, so older people need higher light levels in order to see better.

“Basically by the time people are 65, they need three times the amount of light to see with the same acuity that someone, say, in their 20s or early 30s would need,” says Eunice Noell-Waggoner, President of the Center of Design for an Aging Society and one of the authors of the International Engineering Society of North America’s report “Lighting and the Visual Environment for Senior Living.”

Each layer that forms on the lenses also makes the eyes register more amber, and that changes our perception of color. Amber absorbs bluish and purplish colors, so the older you get, the less blue you can see. That’s why it’s important for older adults to have light sources that give off cooler, bluer light — such as fluorescents and blue LEDs — rather than incandescent bulbs, which tend to have a more yellow cast.

“By having the yellowy, amber lens you cancel the blue range, so you need to have more of that blue range so [you] can see colors better,” Noell-Waggoner says.

And as our lenses get thicker, we also become more sensitive to glare because the additional layers scatter the light we see.

That’s why experts say one of the best ways to increase overall light levels for older adults is to install linear fluorescent tubes near the ceiling to let the light bounce up on light-colored walls to increase the amount of indirect light in a room.

Mariana Figueiro, an assistant professor of lighting at the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and author of “Lighting the Way: The Key to Independence,” suggests installing fluorescent tubes on top of kitchen cabinets and covering the tubes with molding to direct the light up toward the ceiling.

Undercabinet lighting can increase overall light levels, as well. Figueiro recommends using two-foot-long fixtures with prismatic acrylic lenses and electronic ballasts that use 17-W/830 T8 fluorescent tubes.

Figueiro also says you should only use undercabinet lighting if the countertop surface is light-colored and has a mat surface, otherwise, the light may cause too much glare.

“The worst thing you can have is black marble,” Figueiro says.

Both Noell-Waggoner and Figueiro say task lighting is especially important for older adults, who have a harder time adjusting their eyes to varying light levels, and both say task lighting should work in tandem with bright, overhead lighting. To this end, Figueiro suggests installing a recessed light above the kitchen sink.

It’s also important to combine both general and task lighting in the bathroom. In the shower, for example, Figueiro suggests installing a wet-location-rated downlight to provide good task lighting in the shower. And next to the mirror, avoid lighting that will create shadows.

“It’s important to having lighting on the sides of the mirrors so you’re lighting your face from both sides, and for men, particularly [for] grooming, so they can see to shave,” Noell-Waggoner says. “If the light is installed just above the mirror, it creates a shadow. The chin sticks out, creating a shadow, so they don’t see that they’ve got whiskers on their chin that they need to be shaving.”

Figueiro suggests installing covered fluorescent tubes on either side of the mirror to light both sides of the face. If there isn’t enough room for fixtures on either side, she says a covered fluorescent tube above the mirror would also work.

Since older adults get up frequently in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, both Figueiro and Noell-Waggoner suggest installing an amber-colored nightlight to help older adults see their way to and from the bathroom. Light levels should be kept low at night so as to not disrupt people’s sleep cycles.

Figueiro says the Lighting Research Center has proposed installing LED lights on the doorframe of the bathroom to help older adults orient themselves in the middle of the night. “It’s just like a pilot trying to land an airplane; it gives them a vertical cue,” she says, adding that some manufacturers have already expressed interest in developing this type of product.

Noell-Waggoner says if lighting manufacturers and retailers don’t start marketing products for older consumers, they’re going to miss out on a large business opportunity.

“I think it’s really false, the impression that older people don’t have any money. That’s not true,” she says. “A lot of people have plenty of funds, and they know how limiting their world gets if they can’t see.”

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