Aging in Place: Lighting a Room for a Senior Client

Lighting Magazines: enLightenment

Lighting Magazines: enLightenment

“Often, the first thing people notice is their loss of ability to see distance,” notes Terry McGowan, the American Lighting Association’s (ALA) director/engineering & technology and the owner of Lighting Ideas in Cleveland. “That happens around age 45 and is called presbyopia. By 60, most people have a ‘fixed focus’ optical system and need glasses. After age 60, eye and visual system changes accelerate so that less light reaches the eye. Therefore people need more light to see details.” Basically, the follow changes are occurring: reduced visual acuity (ability to see small details); reduced contrast sensitivity (harder to see differences between light and dark objects and surfaces); reduced color discrimination; longer time required to adapt to large and sudden differences in brightness; and increased sensitivity to glare.

Paul Eusterbrock, president of Holkötter International, a lighting manufacturer that has championed lighting developments and products to help aging eyes, agrees. “The main issue is the quality of light,” he says. “Research shows that a 60-year-old needs twice as much light as a 30-year-old. Most of the commonly found lighting guidelines are written with the 30-year-old user in mind,” Eusterbrock explains.  Therefore, as people age, they need roughly twice as much lighting than they think you do.

Eye fatigue during the day is another side effect. “Because the eye loses the ability to accommodate, the muscles of the eye have to work harder,” McGowan notes. “Eyes get tired faster, especially when doing difficult seeing tasks such as driving at night or reading fine print. The solution is to make seeing easier. This means not only reading large-print books, but reducing glare, setting up special lighting for task areas, and having regular eye exams (including retinal) to catch problems promptly.”

Lighting Magazines: enLightenment

According to McGowan, having a few table lamps on while watching TV can help reduce the contrast that occurs between the bright screen and the surrounding darkness of the room. Eusterbrock recommends a torchiere that provides an uplight as well downward illumination for versatility. This could be accomplished with a style that has a separate task light attached or by a torchiere with a glass bowl at the top that will bring some light downward. “I think it is one of the cheapest and best ways to light a room for someone with aging eyes,” he adds.

Is there a magic light bulb that will work for everyone? McGowan and Eusterbrock say no. “This may sound strange, but the perfect bulb is whichever one the user finds works best for them,” McGowan remarks. “Individual vision varies so much – especially as people age – that it’s difficult to develop lighting recipes that are one-size-fits-all,” he says.

It is indeed a matter of preference, agrees Eusterbrock. “There are fluorescents, halogens, and even LEDs bright enough for reading tasks,” he comments. “What’s most important is to have light that you can direct, such as a pivoting or adjustable head on a task lamp. Designs with a reflector [inside the head] are even more effective for focusing the light where you need it,” he suggests.

“I think the most important element is to have a lot of flexibility with your lighting,” McGowan comments. There should be lighting choices for each room and controls for them to vary the light. “The objective is to give the user – no matter what their age – the optimum amount of lighting when and where they want it,” he states. Whether you are old or young, the basic rules of good lighting apply: have sufficient illumination with little or no glare and use diffuse lighting to minimize shadows. If energy savings is a concern, McGowan recommends selecting CFL and LED bulbs with a warm tone (it will read 2700-3000K on the box) and a high color-rendering index of 90 or more.

— Information provided by the American Lighting Association

For more information on “Aging In Place” see our article where Ronnie Rosenbach discusses the “Aging In Place” design process she took to redesign a bathroom for her mother.


4 thoughts on “Aging in Place: Lighting a Room for a Senior Client

  1. that’s good stuff.  i have many customers looking at how to increase brightness to suit multigen eration families in one home.

    1. We have a story about adapting a home to universal design as well in the October issue. This information on lighting is a sidebar to the main story.  We would love to hear about your experiences in helping customers with this topic! With a large portion of the population aging (it’s those boomers!), it’s a very timely topic that’s going to gain importance.

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