The Ultimate Guide to Lighting for Aging in Place

lighting for aging in place

The eyes of a 30-year-old and the eyes of a 60-year-old see the world very differently, both metaphorically and literally.

In the literal sense, several common conditions come with aging eyes, creating an urgency for home lighting upgrades. For those looking to age in place, these lighting upgrades are not a novelty. They are a necessity.

Common Visual Difficulties That Come with Age

Just like every other part of the body, deterioration of the eye is a natural result of the aging process. While there are a plethora of eye ailments that can occur as we age, almost every set of eyes will experience the following complications:

  • A reduction in the ability to see small details. As the lens of the eye begins to lose elasticity, vision clarity and focus are affected. This necessitates good, bright lighting in areas where details matter (the kitchen, home office, or living area). Consider task lighting as a way to make sure you can focus more clearly on minute details. 
  • A reduction in contrast sensitivity. When the pupil muscles weaken, transitioning from well-lit areas to dimly lit areas can become more difficult. Likewise, difficulty differentiating between light and dark objects and the inability to detect surface edges are very common issues that come with age. Bright, uniform light is one solution to this problem, as is the use of high-contrast color surfaces.
  • A reduction in color discrimination. The aging eye also typically yellows, which leads to an erosion in color perception. Decreased recognition of blue and green hues can create major problems with depth perception and contrast detection. Although bright lighting is again a key solution, so is decorating with rich saturation, so colors are more clearly visible.
  • An increased sensitivity to glare. Halos and glare go hand in hand. While they are a normal visual response to bright lights, as the eye ages and the lens of the eye becomes cloudier, halos and glare become more common. Using opaque lampshades to disperse light and using matte finish on walls and surfaces to reduce light reflection are two ways to minimize the potentially harmful impacts of glare in your home.
  • Increased susceptibility to eye disease. Older populations are much more likely to experience eye-related diseases such as glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration, and more. Outside of regular eye doctor appointments and surgical procedures, the best remedy for almost all of these conditions is bright diffusive light. Bouncing light off ceilings or walls can also be of great help with many of these ailments.

Finding the Right Light Source for Your Home

It should be said clearly that no amount of light is too much for your home. As we age, the more light—and the brighter the light—the better. Let’s take a look at several different types of home lighting.

Layered Lighting

You can achieve comfort, utility and beauty with layered lighting: the combination of available ambient light for general illumination, focused lighting for the areas you use most, and accent lighting to create focal points and draw attention. Layering your lighting simply means stepping beyond the basic general overhead light and thoughtfully arranging different styles of lighting to create a cohesive and functional room.

Natural Lighting

Natural light is great for your home; not only is it warm and welcoming, it also offers the best kind of light when paired with shears or a diffusive element of some kind. Large picture windows produce beautiful light, as do bay windows and skylights.

Be careful with natural light, however. One downside to relying too heavily on natural lighting for your home is that as the day comes to a close, it can become more and more challenging to see and adapt to the transition. This means that plenty of ambient lighting should be available for when the need arises. You’ll also want to prepare your home for natural light by doing away with shiny surfaces that could reflect the light intensely and create glare. Using non-glossy finishes for walls and textured surfaces for tables and counters can help minimize the adverse effects of natural lighting.

Table Lamps

Table lamps are a wonderful way to accent your furniture with a light source, while also creating a warm atmosphere. Two big factors to consider when purchasing table lamps include the weight of the lamp and the thickness of the lampshade. If the lamp is too lightweight, it can be easily knocked over. If the shade is too dim it can create visual hazards and prevent you from seeing clearly.

Recessed Lighting

For rooms that have only a single light source, the addition of recessed lighting can help significantly. Not only do recessed lights typically diffuse light better, they also greatly brighten a room. Don’t add too many recessed lights, however, and avoid using them in the center of the room. Not only does this diminish the value of recessed lighting as a diffusion tool, it can create a somewhat sterile atmosphere that feels more like a showroom than a home. Instead, evenly space out your recessed lights about four to six feet apart and keep them about 12 to 18 inches from the wall or an object you want to highlight.

Reading/Work Lighting

Also referred to as “task lighting,” reading and work lighting should be in all areas where focus on details is important. This includes over kitchen counters, sinks, and stove areas, as well as bathroom sinks and counters. Task lighting should also be added to other reading and work areas—such as the bedroom, the living room, and the workshop—using adjustable lights or reading lamps.

Floor Lamps

As long as they’re out of the way and not in a high-traffic area, floor lamps can make an ideal light source for ambient lighting or task lighting. Beware of floor lamps that have floor buttons, however. While floor buttons can make floor lamps easy to turn on and off, the buttons are also attached to a cord, which can turn into a tripping hazard.

Nightlights

Every home should have nightlights. For retirees looking to age in place, that goes double. By putting nightlights in your bedroom, hallways and bathrooms, you can create a visible space without having to shock your eye by turning on bright overhead lighting during night excursions to use the restroom. While nightlights with on/off switches are still sold, most come with either motion or light-detecting sensors. The light-detecting sensors are the best, since they remain on as long as it remains dark in your home. Motion sensors are next best, but their effectiveness requires them to be placed in the proper areas, otherwise, you could find yourself bumping into walls or doors before the nightlight is activated.

Motion Detecting Lights

While we’re on the subject of motion detection, wireless motion sensing lights are a great way to ensure your safety. Removing the need to turn on the lights is a way to make sure rooms, stairs, hallways and closets are always bright enough. There are also automatic nightlights to consider. These plug into wall outlets and can be a great option for bedrooms, bathrooms and hallways. As mentioned above, the only downside is that some motion detecting lights can become a hazard if they’re not positioned correctly or if they don’t turn on right away.

Touch Lights

Due to varying factors – arthritis, finger flexibility and strength, etc. – it can become difficult to turn off and on table and floor lamps. An alternative to explore is touch switches, which let you change any regular outlet into a touch activated on/off switch. You can use mounting strips to attach the sensors to places most convenient for you to reach. There are also plug adapters, which allow you to convert any lamp with metal into a touch-sensing lamp. The only downside with touch lights is that they can sometimes become very sensitive, which can make turning them on and off difficult. This can also become very frustrating (and time consuming) when using a three-way light bulb.

Whatever light sources you choose for your home, make sure you consider your future needs as you age in place.

Light Switches

You can have all the light sources you could possibly need, but if you have to fumble around in the dark to turn them on, their effectiveness is greatly diminished. On/off switches should be accessible near every entrance to hallways and rooms. Switches should also be located at the same height throughout the home to provide familiarity and ease of use when entering a dark area. The ideal height is between 36 and 44 inches from the floor (no higher than 48 inches high). This ensures ease of use for everyone in the home, regardless of height, and it also ensures that the switches can be easily reached from a wheelchair.

While there are a variety of light switch types to choose from, not all of them are ideal for aging in place.

Toggle Switches

Toggle or “flip” switches are the traditional type of switches we envision when we think about a light switch. Toggle switches are fine for universal design, but as we age, our hands become weaker and it takes more effort to flip them. For the budget-conscious, they’ll do, but they’re definitely not the most ideal light switch for aging hands.

Dimmer Switches

In certain locations, dimmer switches are great, but not for most areas. One room that can benefit from a dimmer switch is the bathroom. Although you want as much light as possible throughout the home, going from a dimly light hallway to a brightly lit bathroom in the middle of the night can be jarring (and blinding). A dimmer switch can ease the stress on your eyes and allow you to phase into the brighter light. Be careful, though! Keeping the bathroom dimly lit can lead to slips, falls, and bumps, so you’ll want to brighten the bathroom up as much as possible once your eyes have had a chance to adjust.

Rocker Switches

Rocker or “push” switches are considered the most ideal type of on/off fixture for the aging in place. Not only are they aesthetically pleasing, they’re extremely easy to operate and, like other switches, come with a glow-in-the-dark frame option.

Shades

Although it is important to have a lot of light in your home as you age in place, the more lighting you have, the more opportunity you have for glare. Glare can wreak havoc on aging eyes, because it obscures objects and creates visual impairment. Whether it’s directly in the line of sight or reflecting off a shiny surface, glare is best reduced by the use of shades on your lamps and windows.

Lamp Shades

Because a single, naked light source isn’t enough to adequately illuminate an entire room, shades can help to disperse light so that it reaches areas that would otherwise be cast in shadow. The best shades for aging eyes are opaque glass or thin, light-colored fabric. These types of shades maintain the intensity of the light but disperse it naturally to reduce glare. When you layer shaded lights with recessed lighting or other shaded lights, you’re getting the best possible illumination for a given room. The right shade can even make cold white light bulbs seem inviting.

Window Treatments

As with lamp shades, the goal for window treatments should be to reduce glare, not eliminate light completely. Beyond their light-filtering capacity, the most important factor should be how they operate. Shades or blinds operated with strings or cords can be cumbersome and even dangerous to operate for aging hands. The same goes for window treatments operated by rods. These challenges eliminate woven wood and bamboo as options, since they’re mostly operated with strings, cords, or rods. The best type of window shade or blind for aging in place is cordless, such as roller shades or cellular (or honeycomb) shades with a push-button release. Drapes can be added as an accent and drawn during the evening hours to give the room a warm, cozy feel.

Bulbs

As eyes age and start to yellow, they become less sensitive to bluer hues. As a result, greens and blues become more difficult to distinguish and blues, in particular, start to appear gray. This is why, generally speaking, aging eyes tend to need cooler white lights, which are perceived as brighter.

Incandescent Bulbs

Incandescent bulbs present light from the warmer side of the color spectrum. The red and orange hues of incandescents are certainly more inviting than the cold blues and whites offered by other types of bulbs. Unlike most compact fluorescent (CFL) and light emitting diode (LED) bulbs, incandescent bulbs can be put on a dimmer, which can ease the transition between darkness and light when entering a room. It’s important not to rely too heavily on incandescent bulbs, however, since they cast a dimmer light than their blue and white counterparts. As part of a layered lighting setup that includes a blend of lighting and bulb types, incandescent bulbs play an important role—especially when it comes time to relax.

CFL Bulbs 

CFL bulbs work the same as fluorescent tube bulbs. Electric current reacts with gasses inside the bulb and causes the phosphor coating within the tube to glow. This is the main reason older CFL bulbs are less than ideal for aging eyes—they don’t burn at their full intensity until all of the phosphor painted on the inside of the tube brightens up. This “warming up” period means they start out very dim and gradually reach their peak level of intensity after a minute or two. New CFL bulbs have largely overcome this lag time, but it’s not uncommon for CFL bulbs to be slow to illuminate a room. At full intensity, CFL bulbs cast a cool, white light that provides the best possible option for the aging in place.

LED Bulbs

LED bulbs are made up of a cluster of diodes that give off light when electricity is passed through them. One of the major advantages of LED lights for those wishing to age in place is that these bulbs tend to last much longer than incandescent, CFL, or halogen bulbs. Changing bulbs can be a potentially hazardous activity for retirement-age adults, so reducing the frequency your bulbs need to be changed makes sense.  LED lights also emit a much brighter light than other types of bulbs, making them ideal for aging-in-place homes.

Halogen Bulbs

When it comes to aging in place, there’s a lot not to like about halogen bulbs. Although they are typically much brighter than other types of bulbs, they emit light on the warmer spectrum. They also heat up quickly and can cause burns. Finally, halogen lights can cause glare, which makes them less than ideal for interior illumination in a home with aging eyes. All is not lost, however. Halogen lights work well for exterior lighting, which we’ll discuss below.

Exterior Lighting

Proper exterior illumination is just as important as interior illumination when it comes to those with poor vision or aging eyes. The elements come into play in a variety of ways, making surfaces slippery when it rains, uneven when it snows, and obstacle-ridden when it’s windy. These conditions make it critical that effective lighting is available and working properly.

Just like the inside of the house, it’s a good idea to layer outside lighting as well, paying particular attention to areas that are more frequently traveled. Reserve the brightest lights for places where there are no guides or handrails. Remember, however, that no amount of man-made illumination will overcome the darkness of night. Shadows will always lurk around every corner and contrast will always be low, regardless of the bulb, style, or lighting type you use.

Doorways

All entrances and exits should have lights installed by, near, or over the door. This includes entryways that are not used very often, since they’re most likely the areas where slips or falls will occur (it’s the places we don’t think about that pose the greatest dangers). The best kinds of lights for these areas are sensor lights, which can be triggered by nightfall, motion, or a combination of the two. LED lights work best for this type of scenario, since they cast a wide, bright radiance and the bulbs don’t need to be changed very often.

Walkways

Sidewalks and pathways surrounding your home should be illuminated with downward shining lights to ensure debris and edges are clearly visible. Not only can you stumble or trip over loose stones or sticks without proper lighting, you can also stray off the path and turn an ankle (or worse). Special attention should be given to uneven walkways or walkways with steadily increasing risers. Since it may not be feasible or logistically possible to line a lengthy walkway with electric or motion-sensing lights, solar-powered lights are serviceable for footpaths and sidewalks.

Steps

Just like inside the home, keeping your outdoor steps as visible as possible is critical when it comes to nighttime safety. This not only means keeping them well lit, it also means keeping them clear of foliage and debris. When it comes to lighting, however, there are a variety of stylish ways to keep your exterior steps lit. If your steps are bordered by a wall, for example, you might consider adding border lights to each riser to ensure the step is visible. You can also install lights in the risers themselves to keep the tread of the step illuminated.

If your steps are stone or concrete or aren’t bordered by a wall, then consider adding a short light post alongside the step. Not only do these fixtures keep you safe, they look good at night and are equally decorative during the day if they blend well into your landscaping.

Driveways

lighting for aging in place
Depending on the layout, driveways can be extremely hazardous places. Rarely do they have any sort of guide-rail or handrail, and the lighting gets dimmer the further from the home you get. Motion-sensing lights above the garage and surrounding the driveway are ideal, because they’ll be triggered by your arrival or departure from the home. When adding fixtures to the areas around your driveway, be sure to provide enough distance to ensure wheelchair or walker accessibility, but not so much distance that illumination is compromised. Solar-powered strip-lights embedded at the edges of the driveway or between cobblestones also make for stylish illumination and ensure your safety at night.

Outdoor Bulbs

For outdoor overhead lighting, halogen lights work well. Although they get hot, they’ll be far enough above you to prevent scalds or burns. Solar-powered lighting is a nice touch, but all too often it doesn’t provide enough illumination to be the sole lighting source for aging eyes. Along with halogen lights, LED and incandescent bulbs are great for outdoor lighting, but stay away from CFLs. Even newer CFL bulbs that have overcome the traditional lag time don’t work very well in colder weather, and it can take a few minutes before they reach full intensity.

What Should You Do?

Often overlooked in aging-in-place home remodeling projects, lighting should be a top priority both inside and outside the home. From the condition of the eyes to the complications posed by the weather, there are a variety of factors at play when it comes to residential illumination and none should be ignored.