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Bright Ideas: Smart lighting

October 9, 2017
by Pamela Tabar, Editor-in-Chief
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Forget lighting whose only options are on or off. Several companies are introducing programmable lighting systems that can react to resident movements, adjust themselves to the level of light needed and even mimic different times of the day. Add data analytics features and providers get a much brighter view of resident activities that could indicate clinical complications or falls risks.

Research estimates that as much as 40 percent of senior living falls occur in the evening or at night. But even during the day, the glare of too-bright lighting can be a hazard for sensitive senior eyes. Motion-sensor triggers and timer-based lights are pervasive in today’s market, but some newer systems also can adjust the intensity of the lighting to match the time of day. For resident rooms, a brighter light can be helpful upon entry while a dimmer light is less interruptive to circadian rhythms for those night trips to the bathroom.

The newest advancements are in the combination of adaptive lighting systems and data analytics to study night-time behaviors that may be a clue to clinical problems. Excessive night-time activity that is unusual for a specific resident can have important clinical causes, including urinary tract infections, dementia-based wandering, sleep disorders and even depression. Some systems can track how long a light is on and how often it is used, and then alert a caregiver if the activity doesn’t match the resident’s usual routine.

Luna Lights, a Chicago-based startup, uses a series of battery-operated lights connected wirelessly to a thin bed sensor to provide gentle illumination whenever a resident gets out of bed. Photo sensors register the current light level in the room and adjust themselves automatically, staying on until the resident returns to bed. The system can be programmed to alert caregivers if the resident doesn’t return in the expected amount of time, and its data analytics features can track patterns in night-time exits from bed.

The Luna Lights system is one of the few that has combined the lighting environment with data on falls risks and clinical issues, says Donovan Morrison, Luna Lights CEO. “The lighting system helps them get safely to and from the bathroom, but we can also analyze all that data,” Donovan explains. “If someone is out of bed for an unusual amount of time, it might indicate a fall or confusion, or maybe someone is just having a rough night. But if someone’s nightly activity is trending away from that resident’s norm, it could indicate an underlying condition like pneumonia, a urinary tract infection, undiagnosed back pain or something else. Armed with that data in real time, caregivers can address those things before they worsen or lead to a future fall.”

Meanwhile, Stack Labs is busy redesigning the potential of light bulbs themselves. The Cupertino, California, startup is developing self-adjusting “intelligent” light bulbs that learn the lighting needs and preferences of individual residents. Motion sensors turn lights on and off automatically and adjust brightness based on the natural light in the room. Circadian lighting programming can automatically change the hue and intensity of lighting based on the time of day, mimicking the entire cycle of natural light—from the pale yellows of dawn to the warmth of noon and the cool blues of dusk.

Deciding on a lighting strategy depends on the clinical needs of the resident population involved and the caregivers who work with them every day, Luna Lights’ Donovan says. “You can have the best healthcare solution in the world, but if it doesn’t seamlessly integrate into the caregivers’ workflows and the lives of residents, it’s never really going to be implemented.”

What’s next

Lighting isn’t just about brightness. The latest developments are harnessing the impacts of color and hue as well. For example, amber lighting can have soothing effects on residents with dementia compared to incandescent or LED lighting. Blue hues can help residents—especially those with sleep disorders or dementia-related sundowning—transition to sleep.

While LunaLights’ original product uses a 6-lumen white LED light, the company is already working on amber light in response to its memory care and skilled nursing clients, Donovan says.

Interior designers who focus on senior living are implementing different temperatures, colors and intensities of lighting for specific spaces within the senior living environment, says Mitch Elliott, AIA, senior partner at RDG Planning and Design and the president of the Society for the Advancement of Gerontological Environments (SAGE). “Lighting is one of the exciting new frontiers that we as designers are going to be able to incorporate into spaces that will really make a difference in the lives of our residents.”

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