It's no secret that we all see things a little differently as we get older, but did you know that the way the aging eye perceives light changes too? The older we get, the more challenges we face when it comes to our eyesight—and this, therefore, necessitates the rethinking of our lighting design. According to the American Optometric Association, the aging eye faces increased risks of eye disease and complications such as cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and macular degeneration. Thus, the aging eye presents special lighting needs in interior design.
While this might sound like there’s no way to add lighting that will work for everyone, there are plenty of ways to make your home safer and more comfortable for elderly residents.
How Light Perception Changes with Age
The eyes are a complex system of nerves and muscles, and it's not surprising that they might become less efficient over time. As a result, the aging eye is susceptible to the following changes in visual perception.
· Lower Light Sensitivity
As we age, the number of retinal photoreceptors, particularly rods, in our eyes decreases. This means that our eyes absorb less light than they used to, hence we experience lower light sensitivity and difficulty perceiving things at the edges of our visual field. Research has shown that by the time we turn 80 years, the light absorbed by our eyes reduces by nearly a fifth of the amount of light absorbed in our younger 20s. This shows that aging eyes generally require much higher lighting levels to see more clearly.
· Slower Adaptation to Changes in Lighting Levels
As we age, our eyes begin to lose the ability to react quickly to changes in brightness levels. This means that our pupils don't dilate as much when exposed to bright light, and it takes longer for them to constrict when exposed to darkness. This can be caused by delayed rhodopsin regeneration (DRR), which occurs due to changes in the retina's photoreceptors. With Delayed Rhodopsin Regeneration, photoreceptors take longer than usual to adjust between light and dark conditions.
Additionally, there is a lag in pupil reaction time during lighting exposure as the muscles begin to age. The muscles in our eyes take longer to adjust when lighting levels change, making it harder for aging eyes to see clearly after moving from a dark room into bright light or vice versa.
· Increased Glare Sensitivity
Due to the increased light scatter and reduced pupil size, glare sensitivity is a major problem for seniors. Cataracts are the most common cause of increased sensitivity to glare due to the clouding of the lens of the eye. The eye lens is normally clear and is used to focus light on the retina. Therefore, in a cataract, proteins in the lens cloud small areas causing light to scatter. If these clumps are numerous, then cataracts will aggravate sensitivity to glare from direct lighting and cause blurry vision.
· Lower Visual Acuity
As we age, the lenses in our eyes become cloudier and thicker, and hence lose some of their ability to focus light on our retinas. This can lead to a condition called presbyopia, which usually begins to occur in your 40s and 50s and makes it difficult to focus on near objects. According to the National Eye Institute, this is caused by the lens of the eye losing its flexibility to change shape and focus on close objects.
As a result, aging eyes experience lower visual acuity and blurriness, with a lowered ability to see fine details.
· Changes in Color Perception
Aging affects our perception of color. As we get older, our ability to perceive color becomes more limited and less sensitive. Most people have some color vision loss starting in their mid-40s. The change is very subtle at first, but it becomes more pronounced as we age.
The aging lens yellows and gradually blocks short-wavelength light such as violet and blue light. This yellowing actually helps compensate for the loss of sensitivity to blue light that occurs in the retina, but because the lens keeps yellowing with age, there comes a point when it blocks too much blue light for accurate perception of color. Therefore, colors will begin to look different than they did when we were younger.
· Lower Contrast Sensitivity
Contrast sensitivity is how well your eyes can tell the difference between different shades of color and brightness. This is especially important in low-light situations or when there's glare. Lower contrast sensitivity makes it harder to read texts against certain backgrounds in old age, or to distinguish objects from their background in dim lighting. In other words, contrast sensitivity defines how much detail we can see under conditions of low contrast. This can have important implications for safety and quality of life.
Top 10 Home Lighting Solutions for the Aging Eye
You're never too old to appreciate a well-lit home. When it comes to home lighting design for the elderly, you have to consider the changes in perception of lighting due to age. A quality illuminated environment can remedy the risks of falls, unintentional injuries, and burns that may occur as a result of low vision. Here are ten ways you can use lighting design for seniors to make your home safer and more comfortable for aging eyes:
1. Incorporate Brighter Lighting
Aging eyes require up to five times higher lighting levels compared to younger eyes. Therefore, this requires the incorporation of more lighting in your living spaces. To increase ambient lighting in your living areas, consider using light bulbs with higher lumens. Additionally, you may need to install more light fixtures to achieve the recommended lighting levels for seniors. Track lighting offers an affordable solution with easy installation of more lighting fixtures from a single junction box.
Pay keen attention to the circulation areas, particularly the corridors, hallways, and staircases, providing adequate lighting to ensure safety. The Illuminating Engineering Society recommends a minimum of 300 lux ambient lighting levels in the living areas. Additionally, install 20-50 lux night lighting closer to the floor in corridors and staircases to prevent falls and missteps.
2. Uniform Ambient Lighting
Ensure there is a smooth transition of lighting from one room to the other, allowing adequate time for aging eyes to adjust to the light difference. Make sure that you have an even distribution of light across the room. This means avoiding too much contrast between bright and dark areas in a space and avoiding overly bright or dark spots. Assess the lighting in the room and add uniform lighting to any dark corners.
3. Minimize Glare
The effect of glare on the aging eye cannot be overlooked. Minimize glare in your lighting design by opting for glare-free light fixtures. Go for ceiling lights, recessed lighting fixtures, wall sconces, and table lamps with diffusing shades in matte or frosted finishes. Furthermore, install indirect lighting in preference to direct lighting since they soften shadows to provide more uniform lighting, thus enhancing visual comfort.
4. Incorporate Task Lighting
Optimize the lighting design by incorporating task lighting. The aging eye would require much higher levels of lighting to carry out specialized tasks such as reading, cooking, shaving, or crafting. Therefore, install undercabinet lighting to your kitchen areas, table lamps and floor lamp fixtures in living spaces, a desk lamp on a work desk, and reading lights with movable arms over the bed for directional task lighting.
Provide floor lighting wherever there are changes in floor levels and incorporate vanity lights over bathroom and bedroom dressing mirrors. Depending on the task you’re designing for, opt for 300-1000 lux task lighting levels in such activity areas.
5. Color Correctness
Improve the visual acuity for the aging eye by working with LED light fixtures that have a high Color Rendering Index rating. The Color Rendering Index is a percentage measure of how accurate colors appear under a given light source compared to natural lighting. When lighting for seniors, go for light bulbs with CRI values of over 85.
For ambient lighting, you can stay within the warm spectrum which is often cozier and relaxing for living spaces. However, due to the yellowing of our lenses as we age, look for light bulbs with a color temperature of 3000K or higher when selecting task lighting. This will help counter any yellow tints in the aging eye. LED light bulbs are more preferred to fluorescent bulbs, halogen bulbs, compact fluorescent lights, and incandescent lights. This is because they are more energy-saving and provide a wide range of color temperature options.
As we age, our color perception changes. Our brains become less able to differentiate between different colors or distinguish colors with little contrast between them. Therefore, ensuring color correctness for senior living is highly fundamental.
6. Maximize Daylight
Daylight is easiest on the eyes, decreasing the need for artificial lighting and reducing eye strain. Because of this, maximizing daylight should be a central focus for the home of any elderly person with low vision. Design living spaces that have access to natural light directly from windows and doors. If possible, include a south-facing window for more hours of daylight each day.
Install large windows and keep bay windows unobstructed to allow as much light as possible. You can incorporate adjustable curtains and blinds to control the amount of daylight throughout the day. Alternatively, install automatic shades that adjust themselves based on how much light is outside, or get smart shades that allow you to adjust them remotely from an app. You'll always have the perfect amount of light when you need it.
7. Repaint your Rooms
Brighten your walls and ceilings with matte lighter paint color to enhance the lighting of the space. This will allow for better reflection of light in the room without introducing glare.
A dark room can be very hard on older eyes. Lightening your walls and ceilings will compensate for lower lighting levels by making the space brighter, helping aging eyes better process visual images. Go for neutral colors in shades of white, gray, or light brown. You can also add warmth to a room by painting it in warm tones of creams, yellows, and reds.
8. Lights with Dimmers
A good lighting design for the elderly is one that has a lot of control over brightness levels. This is where dimmers come in. A dimmer allows you to control how bright a light is in your home, which makes it infinitely easier for seniors without putting too much stress on their vision.
With the ability to easily raise or lower the light level, you can increase lighting levels for more elaborate tasks and lower lighting levels when you just need to relax.
9. Deep Red Light Therapy
A study by British researchers has shown that deep red light has a recharging effect on aging eyes, particularly for people above the age of 40 years. Staring at the deep red light daily for three minutes improves cone cell performance by a fifth, by stimulating the mitochondria of the retina cells. Investing in such specialized LED light therapy solutions and incorporating them into your lighting design can provide much-needed comfort for the aging eye.
10. Lighting Controls and Sensors
Sensors and controls for home lighting can make life easier for seniors by automatically detecting when they enter a room and turning on the appropriate lights. They can also adjusting the brightness of the lights based on time of day, and even sense when a person leaves the room to turn off the lights. For the aging eye, these kinds of technologies help create a more safe and comfortable environment.
Lights can be programmed to turn on or off at specific times of the day or installed with built-in color temperature controls that can be optimized throughout the day as circadian lighting. This not only improves the sleep/wake cycle, but also increases productivity and well-being when structured to an elderly person’s daily routine.
Read Also: Installations by Light Artist Leo Villareal
Application in Art Lighting for Seniors
The above lighting tips similarly apply when it comes to installing art lighting for the aging eye. To allow seniors to fully appreciate art, providing accent lighting that is three times brighter than the ambient light you provide is key in highlighting your art piece.
Ensure uniform lighting to minimize shadows cast on the artwork and go for a high CRI fixture to bring out all the finer details and colors of the art piece. This will enhance the visual art quality with lighting. Avoid glare by opting for glare-control accessories for your art lighting, and aiming your light fixtures at a 30-degree angle of incidence.
Perfect Picture Lights provides glare-free art lighting fixtures that are optimized for the aging eye, for a comfortable art-viewing experience. Opt for dimmable LED bulb fixtures that allow for an adjustable lighting environment throughout the day, ensuring maximum visual comfort and better eye health for seniors.
Winny Okoth is a practicing Construction Project Manager and Interior Designer. She is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Construction Project Management. Winny Okoth has a great passion for every form of design as well as 3D visualization skills for architectural and interior design.