Have A Senior Moment

Aging In Place

Much fanfare is being made over the Millennial generation, but according to an ALA-accredited seminar held at Lightovation, aging Baby Boomers present an even greater opportunity for lighting showrooms.

There are several reasons why Terry McGowan, FIES, LC, is passionate about the benefits proper lighting can have on aging eyes. As the ALA’s Director of Engineering & Technology who is also helping to spearhead an upcoming educational program on the topic, he wants to assist the lighting industry by sharing new research information  that can make life better for a growing percentage of the population. Then there is the enormous sales potential he predicts for showrooms who emphasize lighting solutions that can mitigate ailments ranging from student eye fatigue/strain, macular degeneration, cataracts, and other vision problems. And finally, there is the first-hand knowledge he brings to the table as a Baby Boomer.

McGowan cited this statistic from the National Eye Institute: “The over-40 population represents approximately 89 million people, and of those, 63 percent have vision problems. Vision deteriorates with age, and particularly after age 70 there is an increasing number of vision problems that affect the  general senior population.”

Catering to the low-vision, senior, and aging demographic can make your store a destination, noted McGowan, who added that right now there are very few lighting stores targeting this niche. He pointed to the non-profit The Cleveland Sight Center in Ohio as a successful organization that, along with offering professional services for people who are blind or have  low-vision problems, has developed  just such an opportunity by opening a store that sells products applicable to this customer base (i.e. magnifying glasses in various shapes and sizes; large-print calendars; braille dice, playing cards, and stylus tools; plus large-face and talking clocks).

“The experts there will ask what you have trouble with. Is it seeing the dials on the oven? Reading a book? Writing a check? They have lighting demonstration tables where they pair the bulb or lighting product to the needs of the person — it’s a very subjective process,” he explained.

Addressing the seminar audience, McGowan asked for suggestions on appropriate lighting attributes that could interest the aging population. Several attendees answered, “color-tunable” portable lamps, while another suggested lamps/fixtures with a higher Kelvin temperature to help customers read with greater visual clarity, and others offered emphasizing the importance of dimmers as well as fixture/lamp designs with low-glare or adjustable light distributions. McGowan suggested retailers mark such products with tags proclaiming “Senior-Friendly” for extra emphasis on a marketing level that would interest people with elderly friends and relatives. 

McGowan noted Cleveland-based North Coast Accessible Homes (www.adaptmyhome.com) as an example of a business that, like many, specializes in making “aging in place” a featured part of their service. “Here’s a company that touts  30 years of experience in assessing, planning, and making life-enhancing modifications to existing homes.  I wonder how many of such companies would benefit from working with a lighting showroom?” he mused. “What if you could offer the services of a lighting specialist who could go out and do a lighting evaluation of the home?”

There is also a professional accreditation called a Certified Aging in Place Specialist – CAPS – offered by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). “Maybe lighting could become part of that,” he suggested.

“Have any of you tried to set up a relationship with a retirement community or facility in your area?” McGowan asked. Two separate audience members indicated that they have successfully collaborated with retirement/active adult neighborhoods.

“Older people have unique requirements,” McGowan emphasized. “To experience what it might be like for them, put on a pair of sunglasses and walk around your house,” he remarked.  “Try doing routine visual tasks such as reading, finding objects in drawers, or examining the colors of clothes hanging in a closet.  Do you feel there should be more light or less glare?  If so, proper lighting can help.”

“There are two ways to improve visibility: Contrast and Light Reflectance,” McGowan noted. Contrast is defined as the relationship between the luminance of an object and its immediate background. Reflectance is defined as the amount of light reflected from a surface divided by the amount of light incident on that surface. “To improve visibility, you must improve the contrast by either changing the reflectance of the objects being viewed or increasing the luminance of those objects — or both.

McGowan also covered the importance of assessing surface sheen, texture, and pattern when evaluating a space that will be occupied by the elderly. For example, he recommended that stairs have enough contrast of texture, value, and sheen to distinguish the edge of the step from the tread surface. Surfaces with large-scale swirling or geometric patterns can be confusing for people with visual difficulty and can mask important visual cues such as the edge of a step or objects in the pathway.

“Elderly people spend a lot of time wayfinding,” McGowan recounted. “Most people want to stay in their homes for as long as possible. The problem comes when they fall, which happens most often when navigating the top step of a stairway. The data is  overwhelming,” he said of the most common scenario of when a fall occurs. Patterns on floors – whether wood/parquet or carpet – can also fool the eye.

Watch for Glare

Another aspect to be considered is “discomfort glare,” according to McGowan. “People become more sensitive to glare as they age, and ‘discomfort glare’ is worse when using high luminance sources such as bare light bulbs in fixtures or uncontrolled daylight or sunlight. Light sources that are close to the line of sight and bright sources seen against a dark background are common culprits in homes.

Note: there are two types of glare — “disability glare” and “discomfort glare.” Either type may be caused by direct light or light reflected from surfaces. McGowan described “disability glare” as glare which makes it impossible to see — think of what happens when you try to see the road while driving toward someone with their high-beam headlights on.   

“Discomfort glare is what you experience most often, perhaps when you enter a room where the ceiling fixture is too bright,” he explained, adding, “There’s a simple test for discomfort glare:  Block your view of the bright source with your hand.  If you instantly feel visually more comfortable, you’ve reduced your discomfort glare. People instinctively wear visors or baseball caps with large brims outdoors to reduce the discomfort glare from the sun.”

LEDs’ Role

“Controlling flicker has become more important now that we have LED lighting,” McGowan stated. “LEDs are prone to  flicker because they react instantly to power variations. For example, think of holiday light strings. They’re typically designed with just simple AC drivers, so they’re notorious for flicker, but all lighting operated on standard AC power flickers to some degree. LED systems should be carefully checked, especially if a dimmer is involved, to be sure that flicker is not a problem.”

McGowan also mentioned the importance of color. “There are two color metrics – CCT (correlated color temperature) and CRI (color rendering index) – but CRI doesn’t work as well with LED from an evaluation standpoint,” he said. “Your eyes are probably a better guide for assessing the comfort level than the actual metric.”

Color is especially relevant to seniors because the appearance of colors changes as eyes age. “Colors do not appear as deep,” MGowan noted. “Cataracts tend to give  your visual world a yellow tinge. Some may try to compensate.  You have probably noticed  ‘blue hair syndrome,’” he commented, referring to the phenomenon of older women who color their hair at home not being able to accurately see the tint of their hair, resulting in a miscalculation in the color.

With proper wayfinding being so crucial for the elderly living at home, the advent of LEDs allows for task applications that couldn’t have been done previously. “How about a dimmable light strip in amber under the bed to make it easier for them to find their slippers?” McGowan suggested. “Or you could outline a doorway with a light strip in the same manner. Studies at the Lighting Research Center have shown that when older people stand up – especially after being asleep – they aren’t immediately sure which way is up. They are a little disoriented when first getting out of bed.” Outlining a doorway would provide a more instant orientation point.

Make House Calls

When assessing the lighting needs of elderly clients, evaluating their homes in person would be helpful. “Go through the home to see how you can specifically help those who are having difficulty navigating [hallways, stairs, or a particular room configuration],” McGowan stated. “A lot of elderly people do not sleep well, which means they’re up and around at night…which is when falls happen.”

In the bathroom, making sure that the mirror is lit properly so they don’t have to strain to get closer for grooming tasks would increase their comfort level.

At the front door, install a fixture that is shielded –
providing lighting for steps plus low glare helps minimize hazards for homeowners and their guests.

McGowan encouraged lighting professionals to become familiar with the newly released IES-recommended lighting practice Lighting & the Visual Environment for Seniors and the Low-Vision Population. “It’s an ANSI Standard,” he stated, referring to the renowned American National Standards Institute guidelines. “Any time you can quote an ANSI standard, it helps reduce the opposition from a builder or specifier [regarding a lighting suggestion you may have made]. It gives a lot of credibility because it’s a [recognized] standard that backs up what you say.”

Catering to the aging consumer population can be an effective way to differentiate a lighting showroom while serving a very important need that is only going to increase in demand as the largest American demographic in history reaches retirement age and beyond. 

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