As we age, so do our eyes. But how the illuminated environment needs to respond to our changing eyesight is often not a focus of discussions about lighting design. It should be. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Administration on Aging, by 2030 there will be 72.1 million individuals over the age of 65 in this country alone. So how then do we best address the needs of this demographic without sacrificing design or lighting quality?
Lighting designers, researchers, educators, students, manufacturers, regulators, and other interested parties gathered in Washington, D.C., on March 6 and 7 for an IES research symposium, Light + Seniors—A Vision for the Future. The symposium, which also included several poster sessions, began with a keynote presentation by Dr. Donald Klein, professor emeritus of psychology and surgery (ophthalmology) at the University of Calgary. He discussed the biological changes that occur in the eye and visual system as the body ages. Typically, an older eye is more sensitive to glare and high contrast. Older adults also experience a shift in color perception and experience a yellow cast that can, in some individuals, completely alter their ability to read the color accuracy of objects. And yet designing space for older individuals, said Klein, is not always about making things larger (such as text). He illustrated this point by discussing a case study involving the layout of highway traffic signs and the positioning of the graphic symbols.
Another standout presentation was Dr. George Brainard's, director of the Light Research Program at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. A leading expert and researcher in the field for more than 25 years, Brainard discussed how the biological and behavioral effects of light impact human health. Our bodies need light to regulate our bodily systems and functions. In particular, light impacts our ability to produce and regulate key hormones such as melatonin. Failure to produce this hormone critically impairs our sleep-wake cycle—known as the circadian cycle—which affects our ability to properly function. Anyone who has ever been sleep-deprived knows firsthand just how important proper sleep and light are to one's general well-being.
Dr. Peter Boyce, professor emeritus at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., summarized the symposium by asking participants to consider what we do know, what we don't know, and what we should do when it comes to addressing the light and vision issues of an older and aging population. All agreed that more education for consumers, as well as for designers and manufacturers, is needed, as is greater accessibility to products. As Klein had stated during his opening keynote, "Design for an older eye is good for all eyes, because you are designing for your future self."