My lighting column published in the July 2013 issue of TED Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

As the first of the baby boomer generation started retirement in 2012, the 65+ age group is the United States’ fastest-growing demographic. This segment, counted as 13 percent of the population (39.6 million) in 2009, is projected to increase to 19 percent (72 million) by 2030. By 2025, 40 percent of the population will be over age 55.

“The simple truth is that never before in human history has there been so many older people on the planet,” says Jay Massa, regional sales manager for Kenall Lighting. “As the baby boomer population ages, the demand for senior living facilities will soon far outweigh the current capacity to serve this demographic.”

Given current economic conditions, more boomers are expected to “age in place”—that is, retire locally instead of in another state. The current base of facilities for senior living is therefore expected to grow across the country, along with products and services catering to this market.

A critical element of ensuring quality of life for the elderly is proper lighting designed to accommodating the aged eye. Even without age-related ocular conditions such as diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration, as the eye ages, it becomes a less effective instrument of vision.

“Starting at about the age of 40, our vision begins to decline,” says Deb Zawodny, central regional sales manager, architectural ambient/healthcare for Eaton’s Cooper Lighting business. “The lenses of our eyes thicken and become more yellow to brown. This creates distortion in color perception—blues and greens are hard to distinguish, blues may start to be seen more as grays. The pupils of our eyes also become smaller and less responsive to light—an 80-year-old needs six times the amount of light a 20-year-old does to see at the same level.”

She points out that higher light levels should be properly distributed, as over time, the eye’s lens develops opacities prone to scattering light, resulting in greater sensitivity to glare, a greater likelihood to find glare disabling. People with visual impairments may see a patch of glare on a tile floor as a wet spot. Conversely, if there is a very low light level on that same floor, the patch of relative low brightness may be seen as a physically low spot.

As a result, it is important that light levels be high but uniform within each space. Going even further, light levels should be reasonably consistent from space to space, as the mature eye takes longer to adapt to significant changes in light level.

The Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) offers guidelines for lighting for the aging eye, recommending high levels of uniform ambient lighting that is consistent between rooms and provided without direct or reflected glare. Light fixtures should be properly shielded or feature concealed sources. Indirect ambient lighting is preferred, which can be implemented using valances, wall washers, torchieres and similar equipment. Lighter finishes on walls and ceilings will brighten the space by reflecting more light. Wherever possible, daylight should be used as long as it is balanced with the electric lighting, which may be realized by introducing it from more than one direction (e.g., skylights, opposing walls) or by increasing electric light levels. Skylights with direct sun exposure should feature diffused glass or plastic. Well-placed task lighting (e.g., table, floor, kitchen undercabinet lights) with adjustable levels of illumination can provide supplemental lighting in specific reading or work areas. Additional supplementary illumination, such as lighting mounted under exterior stair rails, can provide additional light for safety. All lamps should provide good color rendering, with a CRI of 80+.

“Senior living now covers a wide range of facilities and residents, and a one-size-fits-all approach definitely doesn’t apply,” says Zawodny. “This can make designing these facilities difficult—you have to provide lighting suitable for everyone from healthy, active residents to those in declining health and failing sight. In transitional living, these groups may be separated; in others, they may all inhabit the same facility or at least share some common areas. When residents transition to hospital care areas, we need to provide clinical lighting but also make this as residential in look as possible to provide somewhat of a comfort level to the resident who has now become a patient.”

“The most important consideration in lighting a senior living facility is ensuring the safety of the residents,” says Massa.

New senior facilities should be designed to current standards and will benefit from knowledge of IES guidelines and expertise in their application; research suggests many older facilities are underlighted and may benefit from a redesign to current standards. Common areas, corridors and task lighting in residential and clinical areas are good places to start upgrading. In both new and existing construction, other selling opportunities exist in utilizing the most efficient lighting systems, particularly in older buildings still using incandescent sources in downlights, nightlights and other fixtures. LEDs offer a good choice not only for their high efficiency but also for their longevity and cool and quiet operation; be sure the selected product does not produce flicker, however; is compatible with any control solutions; and that there is a plan in place to check light levels in the future to ensure proper light levels are continually being provided.

Often, when choosing lighting equipment in common areas, Massa says the greatest lighting concern is aesthetics. “However, in the apartments—in an independent living senior facility—it’s important to understand residents’ sight issues and to design and provide proper light levels to help elderly residents see better with less glare,” he says.

Another important factor, he points out, is that lighting equipment may need to meet or exceed industry standards relevant to healthcare/senior living settings, such as maintaining environmental barriers to guard against surface viruses (IP65 and K230).

“Sconces are an ideal fixture to enhance hallways both aesthetically and for illumination,” says Massa. “Again, it’s important to not only consider styles that complement the architectural and interior designs, but are ADA compliant and NSF2 listed to meet the most stringent requirements for infection control and electromagnetic compatibility with sensitive medical equipment.”

Another good lighting choice for senior living facilities, he adds, is the sealed LED steplight, which can be used in patient rooms, corridors, pathways and workstations. Products are available offering a choice of amber, blue or white light and adjustability to 100, 50 and 25 percent light output.

“A senior living facility also falls into the category of commercial because of the kitchen,” Massa concludes. “Whether established by the USDA, FDA or the end user, today’s senior living facility must meet stringent cleanliness standards. Driven by the need to keep foods free of contaminants, the kitchen luminaires must support critical sanitation protocols while maintaining their sealed envelope. They must be designed to withstand rigorous cleaning protocols and meet performance listings relevant to their intended use—including wet location ratings, IP65 ratings and NSF2 certification—all of which support frequent hosedown and overall cleanability.”

Zawodny adds that nightlights are important sources in senior living facilities. “Well-regulated Circadian rhythms are critical to everyone’s health but are even more important as we age,” she points out. “Amber/Red nightlights can be used to keep ‘artificial daylight’ out of sleeping areas, and lowering light levels in the evenings can help ease residents into their sleeping cycle. Keeping light levels ramped up during the day can help keep residents alert during waking hours. Well-regulated day/night cycles have been shown to reduce night wandering in Alzheimer’s patients by as much as 50 percent.”

An important opportunity to enhance convenience and lifestyle is to provide seniors the ability to control their lighting conditions, says Michael Smith, vice president of residential solutions for Lutron Electronics.

“Advances in lighting control technology, specifically wireless lighting and shade controls, promote independence, save energy, install quickly and easily as replacements for standard switches, and can help seniors adapt to health challenges that may limit mobility as they age,” he says. “Even a very simple strategy, like installing a wireless occupancy sensor, can ensure that a senior never has to walk into a dark room, and that lighting automatically turns OFF when the room is empty to save electricity and reduce costs. Wireless remote controls for lighting and motorized shades ensure that even as a senior may experience reduced mobility, he or she can have control of the lighting environment from the bedside, end table or even a wheelchair.”

Options range from standalone devices to whole home systems that can automate control throughout a facility or apartment. Systems can be preprogrammed for preset scenes and controlled by remote control from wireless devices, even mobile phones and tablets, with systems once considered luxury items for high-end homes now readily affordable for senior living facilities.

“It is not an overstatement to say that simple lighting control products can help change lives,” says Smith. “As seniors age and experience physical limitations, lighting control provides a level of independence that many younger people take for granted.”

Massa encourages electrical distributors to compete in this market by positioning themselves as problem solvers. “Education is one of the most important ways distributors can arm themselves when engaging customers,” he says. “Know the lighting problems these facility owners and managers face. Have lighting options available that can solve even the most challenging environments. Work closely with reps and customers to offer the correct lighting solutions to solve any problems. Offer exceptional customer service. The sale doesn’t end when the product is delivered.”