America is now home to the largest-ever population of senior citizens. This group is retiring at a rate of 10,000 per day. By their own admission, they refuse to do so in the same way as their generational predecessors. That means, for the next twenty years, designers and architects will be creating living environments that support people who are getting older. Along with wheelchair accessible showers and easier to operate door handles, lighting alternatives must be considered.
As we age, a number of things occur in our eyes. Pupils begin to constrict. The lens begins to yellow and the cornea becomes more opaque. The muscles surrounding the eye become less responsive and we have an 80% change of developing cataracts. All of these issues can be ameliorated to some degree with more intelligently implemented lighting. While there are MANY ways to make lighting better for the aging eye, let’s start with the four most helpful.
#1 – Get Rid of the Long Bathroom Light Over the Mirror
If you do nothing else for the senior when designing or remodeling, at least avoid the long bar light over the top of the bathroom mirror. This is the single most egregious luminaire for the aged eye. As we tip our head upward for personal grooming, we are forcing our eyes to stare directly into the light. This introduces glare and that is difficult for the eye to process. Instead, use a light on each side of the mirror. Select those with good diffusion (No clear glass!) If possible, include one overhead light, such as a deep recessed can, on the ceiling. Light from three directions will ameliorate any shadows and reduce any glare.
#2 – Don’t Use Surface Mounted “Recessed” Lights
Surface mounted replacements for recessed cans are growing in popularity because they are inexpensive. They are also big, fat glare bombs. The glare created will distract and obfuscate sight for the senior. If recessed cans are planned, be certain to select those where the light source is pushed back into the plenum at least 2 ½” to 3”. Find those that deliver a beam of light at 60° or less. The concentrated beam emitted from a deep base will deliver a much more comfortable light for senior eyes.
#3 – Bedroom to Bathroom Lighting
For reasons best left to medical people, older adults visit the bathroom in the middle of the night more than younger people. These dark trips can easily result in a fall. Turning on bright lights can quickly disrupt melatonin replenishment. Night lighting, or motion activated lighting that delivers a clear path from bed to toilet should be included to avoid both problems. Consider adding LED Tape under the sink, under the bed or along the baseboards to assist in navigation. Be certain the switch is position within reach of the bed. If a nightlight is used, NEVER employ a blue color! Use a maximum of 2200K (Amber) or a red light. These colors will not disrupt sleep.
#4 – Illuminate Changes in Elevation
A simple fall can be life-altering for an older adult. Many household falls can be attributed to steps and stairs. Especially problematic are small changes in elevation, such as those found in sunken living rooms and multi-level architecture. Those can be exacerbated by treads and risers finished in the same color. As we age, we lose a portion of our ability to differentiate color. Misinterpreting where the tread begins causes improper foot placement resulting in a fall. Lucky, LED Tape is now inexpensive and readily available. Illuminating the underside of a tread, adding an illuminated tread channel at the edge of each step, or running an extrusion down the full flight can add much needed light. There are great step-lights and even handrails with light coming from the underside. With scores of step lighting solutions, this problem can easily be eliminated.
#4 ½ – Hallway Lighting
The loss of surefootedness will carry into the hallway, especially those with a consistent color such as hardwood or wall-to-wall carpet. Throw rugs are also dangerous. The lighting used on stairways and steps can be carried into the halls. Sconces and overhead lights can add to glare, but step lights designed to push light down onto the ground will provide helpful illumination, without the harmful glare. Navigating a hallway without tripping over the cat or the rumpled-up rug prevents falls.
Get rid of clear glass and decorative “Edison” vintage lamps, add indirect light over cabinets, at toekicks and inside cabinets, use aiming, opaque-shaded sconces on each side of the bed and place lamps to the side and behind reading chairs. If the elimination of glare, coupled with an increase of light is considered, solutions will immediately come to the fore. The older user needs different lighting. Remembering that will result in a successful age in-place design.