Susan Arnold knows a thing or two about smart lighting for older homeowners. The good news is, the lighting designer says there are well-established strategies for helping seniors compensate for their deteriorating vision. The bad news is, you're not going to like her definition of "older."

"Seventies?!" Arnold exclaims when asked about what special techniques she uses when designing for older homeowners, like the Buckleys of the Concord Cottage project. "When I talk about the aging eye, I'm talking about people in their fifties!" For a forty-something still smarting from that first pair of reading glasses, this is not good news at all.

Arnold, a lighting designer for Wolfer's Lighting, has worked on several This Old House projects before, including Charlestown and Manchester, but we've usually tapped into her expertise in old houses, not old eyes. At the Concord Cottage, where the future homeowners are in their seventies, we thought we needed help with lighting for septuagenarians. We did, but as it turns out the advice she gave us applies to the baby-boom generation as well.

"For anyone over fifty," says Arnold, "the most important thing in lighting design is safety. The eye starts to deteriorate around age fifteen. As you age, your pupils actually get smaller, so less light gets to the back of your eye. By age seventy you need twice as much light than you did at forty — you need double the light coming in to perceive the same amount a younger person does."

Increased wattage and luminosity are just the beginning. Not only does an older eye need a 100-watt lamp where a 60 once sufficed, but it also needs consistent light, whiter light, and glare-free light. "Changes in levels and surfaces trick the eye," says Arnold. "You need brighter lights for steps, and anywhere there's a change in surface, such as where tile meets carpet. You also have to make sure all hallways and common spaces have the same level of light, since older people have trouble with changes in lighting levels — walking from a bright space to a dim one is disorienting."

That's not a big issue at the Concord Cottage, where the tiny space doesn't have a lot of changes in light levels. But for larger homes, residents who skimp on hallway lights would do well to rethink that practice.

The color of light also has a significant impact on how we perceive light, adds Arnold. "Incandescent light is yellowish," she says. "You get whiter light from halogen or fluorescent, but only if you choose the right lamp. 'Cool white' fluorescents actually look blue, and 'warm white' looks pink. Pick lamps that are 'daylight fluorescent' — it's the best choice for light that looks pure white."

Glare is a consideration, too, which is why seemingly unrelated decorating choices like paint and countertops are in fact a part of a good lighting plan. At the Concord Cottage, pencil-thin undercabinet fluorescents in the kitchen will provide concentrated task lighting, but that extra light could easily become a drawback if a shiny countertop reflected too much back at the person standing over it. The choice of a honed granite counter, with a soft matte finish, will minimize glare. High-gloss paint and shiny chrome fixtures also affect glare, and a good lighting plan considers those surfaces as well.

Good lighting's not just about indoor lamps and fixtures. As the over-50 crowd knows from trying to drive at night, outdoor vision can be a challenge once the sun goes down. Arnold has designed low paths of light illuminating the way to both the main house and the Buckleys' cottage. Extra lighting will highlight the gates, just as indoors there's extra lighting to help define stairs and doorways.

"Best of all," says Arnold, "there will be a remote for the car that will let them activate a path of light to their door when they pull in the driveway, and get them inside safely, so they don't have to fumble with switches. It's called 'Radio Ra' — as in the sun god Ra."

And for those of us who don't have personal lighting designers working with us to help our suddenly old-seeming eyes? Arnold recommends four key areas to concentrate on when you evaluate your own home's lighting with an eye toward aging:
  1. Increase the brightness of ambient lighting by upping the wattage of the light bulbs. (Be sure your fixtures can safely accommodate the higher wattage.)
  2. Decrease glare, either by choosing frosted glass fixtures over clear ones, adding a fabric shade, or even by mounting fixtures higher, above eye level.
  3. Balance the levels of lighting, eliminating drastic changes in light from one room to another or from one room to a hallway.
  4. Choose the whitest light you can by making sure light bulbs are pure white or daylight in color.

Where to Find It

For more information on lighting for aging eyes, see the AARP Web page on Universal Design in Electrical and Lighting.

RadioRA is manufactured by Lutron

Wolfer's Lighting has two locations:
103 North Beacon Street
Allston, MA 02134

1339 Main Street
Waltham, MA 02452
Phone: 781-890-5995

Read more about Susan Arnold's previous work for This Old House in Old House, New Light (Charlestown).

Read more about architect Holly Cratsley's elder-friendly design for the Concord Cottage in and 6 Ideas for Elder-Friendly Design.

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