If you’ve ever tripped on a stair riser while fumbling for the light switch in the dark or struggled to read the dosing instructions on a pill bottle by the light over the bathroom sink, you’re not alone. And if the problem has worsened as you got older, you have lots of company.
Appropriate lighting can solve these types of problems. By layering light; putting fixtures in windowless areas, long corridors, and blind spots; and adding skylights, light tubes, or additional windows, homeowners can make their homes function better for them and their families. And while every age can benefit from better lighting, it is those over age 40 who can really appreciate the boost in their ability to see.
Builders, contractors, remodelers, and the dealers who supply them can only help themselves by becoming aware of people’s lighting needs. It’s part of the more general trend toward universal design—incorporating elements in a home that offer comfort, convenience, and ease of use across all ages. Helping homeowners understand their options and guiding them in choosing the best solutions for their situation helps builders differentiate themselves in the market, so there’s potential business for you if you can position your facility as the go-to yard for universal design.
It’s around age 40 that people begin to notice that the food on their dinner plates looks fuzzy and printed material need to be held further away from the face for legibility. The change is inevitable because vision declines as we age.
According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the number of Americans aged 65 and above will rise 31.5% between 2010 and 2020 to 27.5 million. AARP estimates that by 2015, 45% of Americans will be over the age of 50. This is a huge demographic, particularly given that studies show 90% of seniors want to remain in their own home as they age. Aging brings challenges with it, most of which can be met with good design.
“Most houses that people live in are ridiculously underlit,” says Doug Walter, an architect with Centennial, Colo.-based Godden/Sudik Architects. “We need at age 60 about three times the amount of light we needed at age 20. Without it we are struggling.” After age 80, people need six times the light they did at age 20.
“Low vision is a humongous problem,” says Walter, “under-recognized and underserved.” Even the accessibility regulations detailed in the Americans With Disabilities Act only slightly refer to vision problems, he says. Experts we spoke to recommended these improvements:
• Reducing glare in homes goes a long way toward making a home more friendly for those with low vision—which will be all of us at some point. Says Walter: “The worst thing you can do for someone with low vision is have a long corridor with a shiny floor and a tiny window at the end.” The easiest solution for that situation is refinishing or replacing the floor with one with a matte finish and adding fixtures.
• Maximizing daylight helps fulfill Walter’s philosophy that you should never have to turn on a light during the day. “Adding a window is not that difficult,” he says. “Skylights are also pretty easy. Inside the house, open up walls and add an interior window to borrow light.”
• Use dark carpet if the walls are white to increase contrast and thus signal an edge. Markers on stair treads delineate the steps, helping to reduce falls.
• Low-luster finishes on counters as well as floors go a long way toward reducing glare.
• Use layered lighting—a mix of different types of lights from overhead cans to lamps to task lighting—to enable homeowners to accomplish a full range of activities in one room. For example, daylight is best for sewing and crafting, says Rebecca Hadley-Catter, manager of SOURCE Cooper Lighting Center in Peachtree, Ga.
• In the kitchen, add lights to the undersides of cabinets, and do the same for laundry rooms, where extra lighting is always appreciated, suggests Richard C. Duncan, executive director of the Ronald L. Mace Universal Design Institute in Chapel Hill, N.C. Hadley-Catter advises using a bluer light (4100 on the Kelvin scale), which is closer to natural daylight, for fixtures in a laundry room—it helps the person doing the wash identify those dirty spots in clothes.
• Light up the sink area. “We take medicine in the bathroom or kitchen, so you don’t want glare,” Hadley- Catter says. “You want good indirect lighting, and you want lighting at the sink. You need to see all those hairs on the face and where you need to shave underneath the nose.” To do that, you need light that illuminates both sides of your face, she says, not just overhead, which lights only the overhangs but leaves the rest of the face in shadow. Bathrooms should also have a light in the shower.
• Install dimmers on all hardwired fixtures to give people options, advises Walter. Duncan likes rocker switches for dimmers, which are easier to operate for people with less agility in their hands. He’s also a fan of light switches that light up at night, so their placement is readily apparent.
• Long-lasting bulbs will help you avoid potential dangers when a light bulb goes out, Walter says. “I had a mother-in-law in her 80s, with dementia, who climbed onto a ladder to change a light, fell, and needed 50 stitches.” Compact fluorescents (CFLs) are a good choice. Light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, which don’t have filaments to burn out and don’t get especially hot, are an even better one.
• LEDs offer a lot of possibilities, says Duncan. “You can add LEDs in staircases, which are often not well illuminated. LEDs allow you to add low-level lighting actually along the path from, say, the bedroom to the bathroom. You can get LEDs that mimic daylight. There is a particular blue-hued LED light that won’t interrupt your sleep cycle.” The cost factor has prevented LEDs from becoming major players in residential housing, but their price is coming down. Typically, they are about five times the cost of CFLs. However, weigh the price against the longevity of 50,000 hours or more compared with CFLs’ 10,000-hour lifespan.
• Motion sensors have a fan in Walter. The sensors detect movement, typically in a 90-degree field of view, and activate a light. He uses them in garages, so when a homeowner comes out “with a coffee in one hand and a briefcase in another,” he or she won’t be fumbling for the light and risk stumbling in the dark. These also work nicely in multigenerational homes, in foyers and stairways, he says.