Brightening the Home for Seniors

Senior citizens have specific lighting needs. Here’s what you need to know to cater to this niche properly.

One of the most-talked-about seminars at the recent 2012 ALA Conference was Lighting for Senior Living: New Ideas for a Growing Market, which featured Eunice Noell-Waggoner, president of the Center of Design for an Aging Society; Naomi J. Miller, FIES, FIALD, LC, and senior lighting engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories; Fred Oberkircher, FIESNA, Educational IALD, IDA, LC, and the Philips DayBrite Ambassador for Lighting Education; and Terry McGowan, FIES, LC’s the ALA’s director of engineering & technology.

“Our eyes change as we age,” explained Noell-Waggoner. “As we [get older], we need a different quality of light as less light reaches the retina. There is also an increased sensitivity to glare. We really have to be in control of that: how can we [achieve] high light levels without glare.” The aging eye also adapts much more slowly to changes in light levels, such as going from a bright space to dark and vice versa. In addition, there are eye diseases that occur as people age such as cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration.

“Falls and fractures increase 200 percent in people over age 60 and that can be a complication of age-related vision loss,” Noell-Waggoner stated. “There is a loss of contrast sensitivity and a reduced ability to see fine detail. Therefore, you must give them an even light level.”

In daylight, many homes have plenty of light; however, when the sun goes down, the amount of lighting in a room must go up. “I find that often three table lamps are needed in a living room,” Noell-Waggoner noted. “Not everyone wants their living room to look like a lighting showroom,” she joked, adding that round ceiling fixtures and pendants are another way besides table lamps to pump up the amount of light in a room.  “I like to see close-to-ceiling indirect light sources,” she said.

Naomi Miller has found that LED-powered lamps and fixtures could be a helpful solution to the aging population. “Older people lose some dexterity and can hurt themselves,” she explained. “Halogen bulbs get hot, while LED is only 1/5 of the temperature and could reduce the instances of some burns in the home.” However, to eliminate the possibility of glare, it’s important to block any direct view of the LED. “You can do this by using baffles, louvers, lenses, reflectors or lampshades,” she stated. “What’s important is to minimize the ‘brightness’ of the light source.”

When it comes to task lighting, placement is crucial. “You want the light to be on the task,” Miller explained. “If they’re reading, it should be on the book. If they’re at the dining table, it should be on the plates and utensils. Doing this will improve visibility immensely – and this especially true where safety is concerned such as chopping onions at the kitchen counter. The elderly also tend to do a lot of hobbies, such as knitting and woodworking.” She suggests 50 to 100 footcandles or more in the task area, depending on the activity performed, and that the illumination should be very even.

Miller also pays attention to circadian health and how those natural rhythms  affect people’s feelings of well-being. She advised having higher blue light levels during the morning hours (5000K or 10000K measured at the eye) and then having it dimmed down in the afternoon to about 3000-4000K at the eye. “From 6pm to 9pm, have reduced light levels that are more like incandescent,” she said. “From 10pm to 6am, it should be very low light output with amber or reddish light that is ‹2200K.” Miller suggested having a photosensor built into a night-light that shuts off automatically when the room lighting is switched on. The light level should be low enough that it does not disturb melatonin levels, and the physical light should be located low, bouncing the light off the floor (to see a path) rather than being at hip height or higher.

Terry McGowan mentioned that approaching active adult and elderly communities could translate into a new revenue stream for your store. “I’ve visited some of these facilities and I’d give them a C or a D grade in the quality of the lighting. I was not impressed. There is enormous opportunity here,” he said.

Fred Oberkircher agreed, adding that a duplex outlet is another way to provide flexible lighting. “The Clapper was a great solution for the elderly because they didn’t have to read a manual to learn how to operate it. They just plugged it into the outlet, plugged the lamp in, clapped twice and they’re [done],” he remarked. “Wattstopper has an occupancy sensor plug-in strip which is great for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia who enter and leave a room without turning anything off,” he added. “My parents have moved into a home that is more sophisticated than they are, and I’ve found that they sort of move around the issues – usually by buying and installing another device themselves. We can’t control the amount of technology in our world, but we can control how it’s organized.”

Characteristics of Good Lighting for Aging Vision
• Uniform ambient lighting (including hallways)
• Fixtures should conceal the bulbs/tubes from view
• Layers of light
• Good color rendering
• Task lighting should have a high light level and be adjustable in position and light levels
• Avoid light sources that give glare (i.e. halogen)

Showroom Outreach Ideas
•    Participate with local utility companies to provide education on this topic to the public with a message inside the monthly utility bill
•    Develop an incentive/rebate programs with senior care facilities
•    Groups such as Assisted Living Federation of America (, LeadingAge™ (, and state senior care associations are often looking for speakers. Become an expert on this topic.


Aging in Place: Lighting a Room for a Senior Client

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