Whether we accept it or fight it, aging happens. Cosmetic fixes exist for wrinkles and other physical changes, but our eyes are a different matter. Reading glasses or laser surgery may aid your sight, at least for a period of time, but one of the best ways to increase visual comfort and enhance reading abilities is to upgrade your lighting plan.
While it may seem a far-fetched idea, the reality is that the 60-year-old eye requires three times more light than the 20-year-old eye to see and process the same things. A decline in sight might have started in your 40’s, when you noticed glasses were needed to see up close or adjusting to glare or possibly even recognizing colors became more difficult. The truth is that eyes begin to tire more quickly and become more susceptible to glare or white spots as we age, which can make even the simplest tasks more challenging. Paying attention to and improving upon the quality of light within our homes as we age can have a dramatic impact on self-sufficiency, safety, and overall quality of life.
In the United States, according to the National Eye Institute, Americans struggle with multiple age related eye diseases including age related Macular Degeneration (50+), cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. Other age related eye problems are presbyopia, floaters, dry eyes and tearing.
- 6.5 million Americans over age 65 have a severe visual impairment. By 2030, rates of severe vision loss will double with the aging population which will equate to 20% of the population.
- The average 60 year old needs at least 3x more light compared to the average 20 year old.
- The need for eye aids, such as reading glasses, typically begins at age 40.
- Glaucoma is the number one cause of preventable blindness in the world.
There are changes to the eye that happen as we age – some that are anatomical and some that are a result of disease. Common age-related vision complaints include:
- “I can’t see as clearly as I used to.”
- “I have difficulty seeing objects close up.”
- “Colors don’t seem as vivid.”
- “It’s getting more difficult to see in the dark.”
- “I’m less able to adapt to glare.”
- “I need more light to see.”
AGE RELATED EYE CHANGE #1
The pupil becomes smaller due to age. As a result, the eye becomes less responsive to light variations. Seeing in dim light becomes an issue as well as adjusting from bright to dim or dim to bright. Also, glare becomes more evident.
AGE RELATED EYE CHANGE #2
The lens of the eye begins to lose elasticity and flexibility (presbyopia). When this occurs, it makes it more difficult for the lens to bend, an action that is needed to focus on closely held objects. The proper corrective lenses will be helpful but also additional light should be used when needing to see up close.
AGE RELATED EYE CHANGE #3
The lens of the eye begins to change from a white to a yellow. Naturally, this makes the colors that you see altered. For example blue, green and violet shades will be challenging to distinguish from one another. Colors may seem duller and contrasts become less. A fix for this is in the bulb that you choose. The recommendation is to use bulbs with a color-rendoring index (CRI) of 80 or above.
Often, when we decorate our homes, lighting is an afterthought. Yes, most people will remember to budget for a chandelier for the dining room or foyer, and sconces or a singular light for the bathroom, but what about every other room? A room that is both functional and flattering requires multiple layers of light (ambient/or overhead, task, and accent), that is glare free, has contrast colors rather than being tone-on-tone, and has lighting flexibility to a variety of light intensity pending the need.
When thinking about a lighting plan for aging eyes, there are three main solutions to consider: 1) layered lighting, 2) reducing or removing glare as much as is possible and 3) contrasting colors such as light switches from your wall, flooring from your walls, etc.
LAYER YOUR LIGHTING
One of the simplest ways to prepare for and accommodate the needs of aging eyes is to layer your lighting. It adds safety, versatility and beauty to a space. To begin, it is important to understand the basic types of lighting: ambient, task and accent.
Tip: Allow for higher levels of lighting by installing dimmer switches. Consider motion sensor lighting for transitional spaces like stairways and halls to minimize lighting contrast from one room or space to the next.
First layer — Ambient
As we age and the eyes take longer to adjust to changes in light levels, ambient lighting becomes increasingly important. Ambient lighting is your foundation layer; it is a soft, indirect light that fills the volume of a room with illumination. It should soften shadows on people’s faces and create an inviting glow in the room. Ambient lighting should be sufficient within a room for holding conversations, walking through or around the space, and easily identifying objects.
Installing motion or occupancy sensors in transitional areas is an easy way to maintain ambient light as you move about the house without constantly turning on lights. With today’s smart home advances, there are applications that can adapt the level of light to the body’s natural circadian rhythm and even read the surrounding lighting levels.
Natural daylighting — from windows, skylights, and glass doors — is a form of ambient lighting. While natural lighting will supplement your lighting plan, do not rely on it exclusively. A breakfast room or nook may be used consistently at 7:00, but there will be much less natural light in the winter than at the peak of summer, and overcast days can occur any day of the year, blocking the sun’s more direct rays.
To eliminate glare, consider installing window film. As a bonus, many types of window film help block UV rays and will help keep your house cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
Second layer — Task
Task lighting is focused on a specific area to make the completion of visual tasks easier. For example, under-cabinet lighting helps in food preparation. In the bathroom, task lighting makes it easier to see when shaving or applying makeup. In both of these cases, the task lighting is installed and positioned in such a way that the light source is stationary.
At a desk, in a workroom, or any other area where task lighting is used, choose a light that can be easily adjusted or pivoted to ensure a directional light that is not casting shadows or causing discomfort for the eyes.
Third layer — Accent
Accent lighting is decorative — the jewelry that adds interest and intrigue to a space. It highlights and brings emphasis to a particular object or feature, such as artwork or architectural features. Accent lighting also includes things like decorative pendant lights hanging over an island in the kitchen, lighting positioned above or inside cabinets, a chandelier mounted above a soaking tub, or toe-kick lighting for low-level lighting in the bathroom during the night.
The chance of falling in dim lighting conditions is two to four times greater. Night lights, or way-finders, are great at night. There are LED installations that fit directly into baseboards and cabinet toe-kicks, providing soft, non-glare lighting. More conventional plug-in models are also available, often in various colors.
Tip: At night, an amber-red light can be easier on the eyes and less disruptive if you’re trying to get back to sleep.
By layering light, you can achieve the perfect balance between practical purposing — like chopping vegetables for dinner — and creating a softer ambiance throughout the rest of the space. A thoughtful lighting plan, regardless of a room’s size, can visually and functionally enhance the space.
GET GLARE FREE
Glare happens to everyone. Just think of the placement of your TV or computer screen, most likely there are occasions where you need to make adjustments. With age, glare tends to happen more frequently and is directly related to the eyes’ need for more light to process details, while also requiring more time to adjust to changes in levels of brightness.
Reading can be particularly difficult due to glare. If you are reading from a paper source — a book or a magazine — choose a task light that is positioned both above and behind you. A matte or diffused shade is preferable as it will provide for more focused light.
That does not mean that reading from a screen or watching TV requires no lighting. On the contrary, the eye will better adapt to the contrast between the screen and the surrounding lighting conditions with the addition of the use of table or floor lamps.
One of the best ways to reduce glare is to create high but uniform lighting within the space. Indirect lighting, such as cove lighting, wall washers, and torchieres, provide a softer down light. Layered light also helps to minimize the effect of glare.
Terry McGowan, director of engineering & technology for ALA and owner of Lighting Ideas in Cleveland states,
Since eye fatigue occurs more often when we age, the cheapest and best way to accommodate this is to reduce contrast that occurs between light and dark by using up lighting as well as down lighting.
Two ongoing lighting trends to avoid with respect to glare: bare or exposed light bulbs and excessively “bling-y” fixtures with reflective glass and crystals.
CONTRAST COLORS AND FINISHES
Lighting your home goes beyond selecting the light fixtures and determining their placement. The colors and finishes you choose for your walls, upholstery, flooring, cabinets, countertops, and everything else impact how well you can see. When we’re younger, an all-white palette may be soothing. To the aging eye, such a subtle, tone-on-tone scheme can be highly troublesome as it becomes more difficult for the eye to distinguish mild contrasts.
A cream-colored wall, white stair railing, and neutral Berber carpet on the stairs could blur together into one continuous color, perhaps with only fuzzy outlines, creating a hazard for an elderly person missing a step or grasping the wall instead of the hand rail.
We generally try to blend light switches and receptacles into the wall, preferring a more discreet appearance. Swapping receptacle covers to contrast against the wall makes identification and access easier for older residents.
Finishes become more important in terms of how they absorb or reflect light. Glossy, shiny surfaces, such as high sheen floors or tiles, will lead to more light scattering inside the eye and hence, vision difficulty. Matte surfaces are less reflective and will result in minimal glare. Matte surfaces also tend to have more grip and thus safer underfoot.
Other color considerations: beside your interior colors, consider the different types of light bulbs available. There are different color temperatures, (referenced as Kelvins) that typically fall between the range of 2200K through 6500K that will illuminate your space and effect your vision differently. Make sure to reference our Light Bulb Buying Guide for full insight.
LIGHTING TIPS FOR PRIMARY LIVING SPACES
In all rooms, whether open or closed plan layouts, layer your lighting, install dimmer switches, and place lights on different circuits so that you can more easily play with atmosphere and lighting levels to accommodate activities and time of day.
- Layer your lighting, introducing a mix of ceiling, wall, floor, table, and task lights, varying the heights of the light sources throughout the room.
- Include bright task lights as well as softer table lights that are more conducive to conversation.
- Make the lighting work – highlight a fireplace, artwork, a favorite piece of furniture.
- Place the TV (and any other screens) so that there is no reflected light from either the windows or light fixtures. To further minimize glare, consider applying a non-glare window film to the interior of your windows, which will make living within the space more pleasant without impacting the view outside or the light coming into the room.
- Dimmers are especially helpful in this room so as your eyes become more fatigued, more or less lighting can be adjusted.
- Crystals and shiny glass fixtures can add a sense of elegance and help bounce the light around a room, but as you age, this can result in glare and white spots reflecting off glassware and even some china. Exposed bulbs can do the same. Consider swapping or updating glittery chandeliers with opaque shades or diffusers that will soften the way the light falls without diminishing the amount of light provided.
- Downlights around the edges of the room create a nice wall wash and illuminate the room without shining directly into your eyes.
- Wall lights and display lighting will create real atmosphere. Simply highlight artwork and/or architectural details.
- LED tape can be added in ceiling coves to gently illuminate the ceiling and create a soft halo of light from above.
- Matte wall finishes will help to minimize glare in a room with a lot of reflective surfaces. Consider adding a tablecloth and place mats over glossy table surfaces to further reduce glare and provide contrast between the cutlery, stemware, and place settings.
- A monochrome kitchen might look great, but it will prove challenging for aging eyes to distinguish between surfaces. Instead, create notable color contrasts between the floors, cabinets, counter, walls, and stove. Don’t forget to include both the cabinetry hardware and controls for the stove in the contrast scheme for stronger visual differentiation.
- Have the lights on two or three different circuits so you can choose which part of the room to light. For example, pendant lighting on one, overhead lighting on a second, and undercabinet, toe kick, and interior glass-front cabinetry lighting on a third.
- Rather than creating a symmetrical ceiling grid with potlights, concentrate on placing fixtures where they’re needed and recessing them into the ceiling.
- Think about imaginative uses for LED tape, examples could include inside cabinets & drawers, by an outlet, around mirrors, under beds, inside your refrigerator, under your bed, outside on a deck, etc.
- Wall lights and display lighting will create real atmosphere.
- Place bedside lighting within easy reach of the bed and place them so that the light comes from above and behind you, making the light ideal for reading. (For a complete guide on bedside light placement, refer to our lamp buying guide).
- An overhead light can be a great decorative feature in a bedroom, but it should not be your only, or even your primary, source of light.
- Downlights around the edges of the room create a nice wall wash and illuminate the room without shining directly into your eyes.
- Install light controls with two or more poles, i.e. so that you can turn the light on when you enter the room from one switch, and off once you are comfortably settled in bed from a second switch.
- Consider a floor lamp with a pale shade which will create a soft circle of light, perhaps in a small conversation area or near your closet or wardrobe.
- More than any other room, layer your lighting on multiple circuits and install dimmers on overhead and task lighting alike. Do not rely on overhead lighting alone.
- Create a bathroom that is warm, inviting and also safe. Use warm colors to make the space more inviting, and to give the impression of a warmer temperature color. But as in the kitchen, be sure to opt for notable contrast between the floor, cabinetry, fixtures, walls, and counters.
- Consider using a Passive Infra-Red (PIR) light (a motion activated light or switch) which can greatly aid way-finding to the bathroom at night.
- Think about imaginative uses for LED tape. Placed beneath the cabinetry or as cove lighting, it can gently light the space at night.
- Put wall lights on either side of mirrors for a more even, flattering light that is also highly practical for things like shaving and make-up application.
- Make sure to use outdoor path lighting to illuminate a walkway or driveway.
- Be sure to have timed or motion sensor lights mounted by your garage door to prevent falls and to alert you of people coming onto your property.
- All entrances/exits should be bathed in light whether that is overhead lighting or wall lighting.
- Make sure to utilize deck lights or rope-lights for porches, decks and stairways.
- House numbers should be large and of a contrast color to where it is mounted.
- Clearly mark obstructions with contrast colors and additional light highlighting the variance in surface heights and obtrusion.
As we age, our lighting needs shift as our eyes require more light to comfortably see the same things and perform the same tasks. But our eyes also become more susceptible to glare and are less capable of distinguishing differences in similar colors and tones. Removing adjustment strain from our eyes will prolong their health. Doing these five simple things throughout the home will be a great help:
- Layer your lighting in every room, introducing a mix of ceiling, wall, floor, table, and task lights, varying the heights of the light sources throughout the room.
- Install dimmers.
- Place lights on multiple circuits so that you can play with atmosphere and adjust lighting more easily according to time of day and task.
- Ensure the thing you are lighting is lighter than the light source.
- Glass, crystal, and exposed bulbs provide more glare; replace these fixtures where possible. Adding darker shades and diffusers can help to minimize glare, as will the use of more matte surfaces, particularly on walls, flooring, cabinetry, tiles, and counters.
Remember, lighting is an inexpensive and yet very effective way to aid with everyday functions, even if you have great vision, but even more so, if your vision isn’t what it once was.
Whether you are old or young, the basic rules of good lighting apply: have sufficient illumination with little or no glare and use diffused lighting to minimize shadows. -Tim McGowan
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