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Jenny Heinzen York

Illuminations: Lighting for senior living

As the American population continues to age, lighting for the older generation is becoming a hot topic for lighting vendors and retailers.
     This issue was the subject of one of the panel discussions during the fall's American Lighting Association Conference. Led by ALA's Terry McGowan, the panelists were Eunice Noell-Waggoner, from the Center for Design for an Aging Society, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit; and lighting designers Fred Oberkircher, professor emeritus of lighting design at Texas Christian University, and Naomi Miller of Pacific Northwest Laboratories.
     McGowan said that 10,000 people per day reach the age of 65 in the United States, and 92% want to stay in their own homes. These two data points represent a huge opportunity for the lighting community, but knowledge on the subject is a must, the panelists said.
     "Our eyes change throughout our lifetime ... and so we have to realize that as we age, we do need a different quality of light than we did as young people," Noell-Waggoner said. "Less light reaches the retina. At age 65, only one third of the light hits the retina as it did at age 20."
     She also said there is an increased sensitivity to glare and slower adaptation to changes in light levels as people age. Another factor for the aging: Eye diseases are much more prevalent in older adults, including cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, which make the lighting needs even more critical.
     But, she said, a big part of the strategy for tackling this issue comes from knowing how to light and how to control light. "Because people living in a home may not have the same light needs - control is critical," she said, noting that vision issues can also lead to more falls, and more hip fractures - which lead to more deaths than breast cancer in older women.
     Noell-Waggoner cited research that indicates that quality of light equals quality of life, including improved safety, health, independence, enjoyment and self-esteem.
     To help achieve these, lighting fixtures and lamps should conceal the bulb, use diffusers to diminish glare, offer layers of light, provide good color rendering, offer adjustability in position and light level, and not produce heat.
     That said, there is still room for decorative appeal, she said. "A home should not look like a lighting showroom," she said. "You need a blend of architectural and portable lighting.
     "We can't turn back the clock," she said. "We can wear glasses, but there's only so much the optician can do for us. ... But we can use lighting to make us feel young again."
     Naomi Miller discussed new LED technologies and how they can be put to use with the aging population.
     The advantages, she said: LEDs are cool to the touch; have no warm-up time (unlike compact fluorescent bulbs which can take a few minutes to reach full brightness); are energy efficient (at least four times more than halogen); offer a small size and lumen package; have excellent color characteristics; give off no ultraviolet or infrared rays; have a long life so maintenance is reduced; and they sometimes offer "tunability" of the spectrum.
     The human body is programmed for bluish light during the day and reddish at night, she said. The LED bulb can do both.
     The disadvantages: New technology means a premium price: there can be glare issues with bright bare chips; there are many poor-quality LEDs on the market - some deliver poor quality, some flicker (especially with some dimmers) and some are underpowered; equivalency claims are sometimes inflated (comparing familiar wattage numbers to newer lumen ratings).
     In terms of the key principles of design when creating lighting for seniors, it's important to block direct view of LED elements and bright lenses and to limit intensity of light directed toward users' eyes. She suggests baffles, louvres, lenses, reflectors and shades to minimize the brightness of the light source.
     When creating task lighting, for tasks such as reading, desk work, dining, cooking or food preparation, the goal should be to deliver light to the task. "Putting the light on the object or the surface that the individual needs to see, not into the eyes," she said.
     Circadian health is also especially important in seniors, and good color rendering indexes can help guide that. Higher, bluer light levels are needed during morning hours (5,000K); lower, normal light levels during afternoon (3,000K to 4,000K); subdued, warmer light levels in late afternoon and evening (2,500K to 3,000K); very low, very warm at night (less than 2,500K).
     She forecasts the end to be near for compact fluorescent technology as improvements to LEDs are made and their high cost continues to come down.
     "I don't think the CFL lamp is going to last much longer," she said. "It will be replaced by LED bulbs with a lot more flavors. ... I don't think that linear fluorescent is going away any time soon, but I do think LED is eventually going to replace it."
     Miller said the best opportunity for lighting vendors and retailers is to modify fixtures with adjustable LEDs, provide good task lighting options and provide lighting for bathrooms, stairs and porches (areas where falls are most likely to occur).
     Fred Oberkircher argued that the biggest opportunity for the industry is in portables.
     "There's a tendency for us to pigeonhole," he said of seniors, despite the fact that the variability in their visual abili- ties is huge.
     "Portable space lighting fixtures are very hard to find," he said. "(There is) opportunity for plug-ins, because houses now are being built for 40-year-olds. When they reach 60, they will not be ripping out all the fixtures, they will be using plug-in options to meet their needs."
     Another consideration that the panel raised: Energy rules are getting stricter - how can this reconcile with the increasing lighting needs for seniors? This is a subject that is problematic, particularly in care facilities which are regulated differently than private residences.

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