How do we meet the increased lighting needs of an aging population?

We are getting older. Probably wiser. But as the human eye is aging, our needs for light increase dramatically. ”We are talking about raising the retirement age and living a more active life as elderly. To realize this, we have to come up with new solutions”, says Henrik Clausen.

In 1980, the number of people in the world who had reached 60 years was 378 million. In the middle of our century, they are expected to reach 2 billion. The trend is also a fact within the European Union where an increasing part of the population is older, while the proportion of young people decreases. The consequence is that we have to work longer to maintain the welfare – and to take care of our old.

“This is not necessarily a bad thing. Our approach to aging has changed in many positive ways. We no longer accept a calm and withdrawn life as old-timers. Many of us want to remain active in working life long after the statutory retirement age. We like the idea of turning up at the office as usual and meeting younger colleagues with new perspectives”, says Henrik Clausen, popular lecturer and Director of the Fagerhult Academy.

“We want to continue to experience life and the world as we are used to. Travelling, sporting activity and driving our cars without being limited by our aging bodies. This is wonderful, but it also causes a lot of complications, especially from a lighting perspective.”

Urgent research needs

Image of a man and woman looking at a computerLighting planning for the elderly was previously relatively uncomplicated, primarily focusing on nursing homes. In the future, the lighting needs of an aging population are to be met in all contexts – from workplaces, meeting places and schools to traffic environments. Schools designed with lighting intended for a 20-year-old also have to meet the requirements of the retiree association’s evening course in watercolour painting. Not to mention street lighting and headlights. The ones we have today cannot support the vision of a 70-year-old…

“Today we have very good knowledge of how the eye works for people between 20–60 years. But very little research has been done on what happens with the eye and its need of light when we are older than that. Though, we do know that an aging person needs much more light than a young person. When getting older, the lens of the eye is yellowing, making our sight cloudy. 

For example, a 40-year-old person requires twice as much light as a 20-year-old to have good eyesight. And a 60-year-old needs four times as much. How much more light the 80-year-old needs, in that we can only speculate. Recent research from the US road authorities indicates it could be up to 30 times as much.”

Can we defend it?

The question is twofold, says Henrik Clausen. On the one hand, the wide span of ages calls for a lighting design that is extremely diversified.

“But an even more complex question is energy. Customizing lighting in order to meet the needs of the elderly would mean a dramatic increase of energy consumption. Can we defend that? This is why it is so important that we get research started in this area at once. We need solutions that are sustainable in both perspectives – energy and human.”

New lighting control systems with individual settings is a possible solution, at least to a certain extent. For example, you can install lighting with higher effect at work places and in community centres, but choose to let them work at lower levels. With the help of the lighting control system, older employees or visitors can raise the light levels in the areas where they choose to stay and work. Today’s technology with apps controlled by smartphone and tablets already makes this possible. 

Alternative solutions

On the other hand, as lighting professionals, we should be open minded, realizing that there might be other ways. Maybe more light is not the solution. Maybe it is not about light at all…

“I recently met an eye surgeon who performs six lens changes per day. After changing the lens an older person has the eyesight of a 20-year-old. Maybe we should reflect over the idea that it is more viable to replace a lens in the human eye with artificial material, instead of consuming more energy? Positive or provocative? Without adequate research, we can only speculate.“

Text: Amelie Bergman
Photo: Mats Andersson