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Smart lighting design critical for seniors and other low vision populations

Most senior citizens suffer from some form of vision loss. Our eyes weaken over time, leading to problems like glare and floaters. For senior living communities and senior care facilities, smart lighting design is a crucial part of creating a safe, comfortable environment. Advancements like tunable white lighting are primed to change things for the better, but simpler strategies can make a big difference, too. 

Robert Dupuy, IALD, IES, LC, educates engineers, lighting designers and state administrators across North America on aspects of lighting for seniors and other low vision populations. He has worked in the field for more than 20 years and co-authored the international standard on lighting for senior living facilities. Eaton’s Lighting Division team talked with Dupuy about lighting challenges seniors face and how the industry can make things better for everyone. 

What are some of the challenges faced by seniors and other low vision populations?

Lighting in senior living communities and senior care facilities is often hospitality oriented. It might be attractive to the average visitor, but it’s not bright enough for people with vision problems. This is problematic, because nearly everyone living or staying in these settings has a visual impairment. Inadequate or incorrect lighting, from glare to uneven illumination in corridors, leads to falling and other problems for seniors.

One major reason this happens is that many developers and building management companies are more concerned about the look of the space than the needs of the people inside. They may want to hang a large chandelier in the lobby in order to make an aesthetic statement, but chandeliers don’t always produce usable light and often create glare. Glare is a serious issue for older people.

There is also a real push to do less as a cost-cutting measure. For example, if a lighting designer recommends four luminaires to properly illuminate a space, a developer might ask why they can’t get by with one or two luminaires. The bottom line is that lighting is considered low-hanging fruit when it comes to cost-cutting. It’s one of the first things customers want to value-engineer.

Unfortunately, lighting is not regulated in most states, so facility owners have no impetus to increase lighting levels and believe that reducing lighting quantity is an easy way to save money.

Are there recognized standards for lighting in senior living communities and senior care facilities?

The Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IES) created an international standard that covers lighting and environmental issues inside senior living facilities, dictating factors such as color. A revised version of this document, ANSI/IES/RP-28-16 or “Lighting and the Visual Environment for Seniors and the Low-Vision Population,” will be published later this year; I sit on the committee that developed the document.

The IES standard is an excellent guide to lighting for seniors and the low-vision population. Unfortunately, it’s only used by a handful of states. This is because historically, higher lighting levels consumed more energy, making it difficult for facilities to meet energy code.  

The good news is that advancements in LED lighting now make it possible to provide higher lighting levels and also meet energy code. We can have the best of both worlds.

Why have senior living spaces been slow to adopt optimal lighting?

LEDs are better than ever, but this market has been slow to adopt them. The technology is getting stronger everyday and is becoming more affordable, yet many distributors still try to sell their customers on deals for CFL downlights, sometimes at half the cost of LEDs. I’ve seen customers switch to CFLs at the last second after approving a facility design with LEDs, even though CFLs are not energy-efficient and are on their way out. Energy savings aren’t always a hot button for people, especially in states without energy codes or with energy codes that are only loosely enforced.

At the end of the day, these decisions are about money. That’s why it’s so important to educate customers on all of the efficiencies gained by switching to LEDs. For example, even if energy usage isn’t a factor, maintenance costs are relevant for everyone. By switching to LEDs, you can reduce your maintenance costs to almost nothing. The resulting savings go directly back to your bottom line.

What are future opportunities in lighting for these spaces?

Tunable white lighting is the next big thing, now and into the foreseeable future. Tunable white LEDs allow us to shift the color of light from warm to neutral to cool. This can be done for aesthetic or medical reasons.

A few forward-thinking hospitals are beginning to experiment with tunable white LEDs on geriatric floors and certain units to positively impact circadian rhythm. Hospitals are the perfect launch pad for this technology; they have the money to pull it off and are staffed with people who understand that lighting is a crucial part of health.

Tunable white lighting also has the potential to make a widespread impact in schools and office environments, particularly with the advent of advanced controls. The technology allows us to “talk” to a single light above our heads, tell it what to do, change its color and intensity, etc.

Today, tunable light is fairly expensive, but that’s starting to change. With that said, I don’t think the availability of decorative fixtures with this technology will grow quickly. That’s unfortunate, since many retirement communities emphasize decorative lighting fixtures. In a perfect world, the lighting industry would commit to developing more decorative fixtures that have this technology. We could have an incredible impact on the health of seniors living in these communities if we found a way to make tunable white lighting more affordable and more aesthetically pleasing.

The bottom line is that people’s health should be our number one priority. As an industry, we need to work together to deliver the best lighting solutions in the most cost-effective manner.