Boomer Alert: You Need Better Lighting to Compensate for Aging Eyes

Lloyd Alter’s lights

Most people have thermostat wars. In our house we have lighting wars, especially since we converted all our bulbs to LEDs and our main fixtures to Hue RGB LEDs, which we can control on our phones. I am always turning up the light to the absolutely highest level and sitting right under the fixture; my wife keeps changing it to a more pleasing color temperature and lower intensity. When I chose lights for everywhere else in the house that required fixed bulbs, I picked far brighter ones than she would. (We could do surgery in the bathroom, is a common complaint.)

And it turns out that there’s a good reason for all of this. As you get older, the amount of light that gets to the retina is significantly reduced. According to Eunice Noell-Waggoner, president of the Center of Design for an Aging Society — who was interviewed in Light Logic — by age 65 the amount of light is reduced to 33 percent compared to young people. Those at the high end of the boomer cohort are also going to have increased sensitivity to glare and have longer adaption times from bright to dim. I’m surprised they still let us on the roads at night.

Most of our homes have terrible lighting. Developers would cheap out by not having ceiling fixtures when they could simply switch an outlet on the wall, making the purchaser have to pay for the lamp. Most people chose fixtures for how they look rather than the quantity or quality of light.

Fortunately, at the same time that baby boomers are getting to the age where they have to worry about lighting levels, there are wonderful new options. You can replace old fixtures and bulbs with new LEDs, increasing lighting levels while dropping electrical consumption at the same time. Controls can be programmed to individual needs and set up in our phones. You can walk into a room and say to your watch “Siri, set the lights for me.”

So what should you do? According to Noell-Waggoner, there are a number of changes we should think of. In the kitchen, think not only of the counters, but also make sure the insides of cabinets are illuminated.

Bathrooms also need multiple sources of light; bright for bathing, shaving and makeup; dim and low and red or amber at night to find your way around.

In the living and dining rooms?

By providing layers of light, these spaces can be well lit without looking commercial or too bright. The combination of indirect ambient light along with table or floor lamps, wall sconces, wall-wash luminaries, accent lighting, and chandeliers will provide a well-balanced lighting design.

Generally, according to the Illuminating Engineering Society (PDF here), as we age we need:

  • Lighting that is more uniform from room to room because it takes time for eyes to adjust;
  • Higher levels of light because changes in our eyes restrict the amount of light that gets to the retina;
  • Glare-free light because we lose the ability to see subtle details;
  • Adjustable color temperature lights because the lens yellows with age and now this can be compensated for. (That’s my suggestion, not theirs.)

There are lots of other suggestions, like lighting in keyholes, stair treads, closets. Exterior lighting also is important.

battery powered fixture
This battery-powered fixture just keeps going and going. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

But there has never been a better time to deal with this. Even battery powered LED fixtures are game changers now, especially if you don’t have wiring in the right place. I have been testing the GE Enbrighten battery-powered fixture and while it is definitely a work in progress, it has run for weeks on on the batteries it came with. Soon we might not even have to worry about plugging in our lights as wireless charging comes to our electronics, and that’s what our lighting is turning into, another low-voltage connected electronic component.

After reading Eunice Noell-Waggoner’s suggestions and comments, I understand why my wife and I are arguing over lighting; she is younger and has better vision.

But I also know that of all the problems that baby boomers face as they age, this is about the easiest and cheapest to solve, and you might even save money while you do it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s