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A design primer for the aging eye

June 1, 2008
by Julie Moller
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Interior design features to consider when accommodating fading vision

The Alliance on Aging Research reports that visual impairment is one of the top four reasons for a loss of independence among seniors. For example, 18% of all hip fractures among older people are attributed to age-related vision loss. Senior living communities are known for promoting independence. These days, many devote capital as well as human resources to wellness programs that come in all shapes and sizes—from small exercise sessions to on-site golf courses and Olympic-sized swimming pools. But communities also grapple with keeping residents safe during their activities.

Unfortunately, the affects of an aging eye can provide impediments to resident function and well-being because of (1) safety issues resulting from slipping on unseen spills or falling because of poor lighting, and (2) lifestyle diminishments resulting from a lack of legible signage or such things as poorly designed appliances.

When creating new interior solutions for your community, why not design with the senior eye in mind? This article will look at numerous ways senior living interior designers create environments that work to the best advantage of senior eyes through application of light, color, and eye accessories. Readers will be given a list of “Ten Tips When Designing for the Senior Eye” encompassing these three categories. The tips are summarized as:

  1. More & Mixed

  2. Consistency

  3. Safer, Not Sorrier

  4. All that Glares Is Not for the Old

  5. Let the Sun Shine In

  6. Warmer Colors “Read” Better

  7. Contrast Colors and Tones

  8. Legible—Larger

  9. Simplify for Contrast

  10. Complement Seeing With Hearing


Listed below are the advantages and disadvantages of the three major light sources:

  • Fluorescent fixtures maintain a high level of diffused light. While the most common bulbs wash color out, a reasonable number of color-correct bulbs are on the market.

  • Incandescent lighting provides indirect or ambient lighting while simultaneously avoiding glare and brings out the warmer colors in an object.

  • Natural light promotes health (disperses vitamin D), although it tends to lighten colors.

Lighting tips

More & Mixed. Mixing light sources increases overall light levels and adds visual interest to interior spaces while balancing individual light inadequacies. For example, sunlight streaming through windows warms and illuminates a room, whereas using general lighting at night with lamps and wall washers can provide soft glows in certain areas while highlighting others.

Think about “jazzing up” (as well as lighting up) corridors by using general fluorescent lighting with incandescent wall sconces and/or an incandescent recessed downlight at each unit. Consider cove lighting because it delivers a great deal of value relative to its price, i.e., it can break up the monotony of general lighting, reduce glare, offer interest, and maintain consistent lighting levels, while making the ceiling seem higher.

Consistency. All interior spaces need to be lit at a consistently even level to reduce glare and decrease shadows. Consistency needs to be applied from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling, as well as from corridor to public or private rooms. As a standard rule of thumb, overall light levels for seniors need to be 25–50% higher and luminance at task locations needs to be two to five times the normal level.

Highly saturated colors at the warm end of the light spectrum and having a high degree of brightness are best for senior eyes as seen at Twin Lakes, Montgomery, Ohio.

Photo: Brad Feinknopf

Highly saturated colors at the warm end of the light spectrum and having a high degree of brightness are best for senior eyes as seen at Twin Lakes, Montgomery, Ohio.

Also, don't forget that elevator lighting needs to be consistent within adjacent corridors and/or adjoining rooms.

Safer, Not Sorrier. Brighter lighting is recommended for signs and hazards such as stairwells, exposed pipes, steps, sharp/moving objects, and all surface changes, as well as in areas that may be subject to frequent spills. This is also particularly true for bathrooms.

Install motion sensors on foyer or entry lights in resident units for safer senior nights. Light switches also need to be visually prominent either through illumination and/or color.

Along with ensuring bright light in resident rooms and hallways, a system of brightly illuminated paths, or “brightways,” through the garden for evening walks might be considered.




Indoor and outdoor awning can add a great look to your home or storefront. With fabric awning you can do a lot with the lights as well.