LED lighting in senior living: Friend or foe?

One of the newest technologies in lighting is LED (light-emitting diode). But is it that easy to find, specify and place? What about the cost? In our recent experience with clients looking to update their community lighting—both decorative and functional—switching to LED was easy to achieve in some areas, but a challenge for others. We researched the retrofit of a variety of LED sources for common areas, private rooms and in staff spaces. Our findings were not what we expected. 

Although LED lighting has been around since the 1960s, only in the last few years have we started to address its use in commercial buildings. While LED lighting serves a purpose in senior living environments, the selection and location of LED fixtures should be heavily considered and researched so that reliable and cost-effective products are selected.


LED is a semiconductor light source. When an LED is switched on, electrons are able to recombine with electron holes within the device, releasing energy in the form of photons. This process creates light-emitting photons, or what is known as electroluminescence. But there is a lot of light buildup in this process, which has been an obstacle for LED creators. Some say LEDs are a “temporary” solution to energy-efficient lighting because they have a narrow focused light beam and cost more.

A modern retrofit LED lamp with "bulb" shape.

LEDs have many advantages over incandescent light sources, including lower energy consumption, because there is less wattage for lumen output, longer lifetime (life span of 35,000–50,000 hours, improved physical robustness, smaller size and faster switching.1 In addition, LED lighting can be used for “light harvesting,” controlling the amount of light needed based on how much natural light is penetrating the space and they can be dimmed. A dimmable ballast for a CFL costs run about $75–$100, but with LED, the dimming is free!

One of the most common misunderstandings about LED lighting is that energy consumption can be used to measure light output. Unlike conventional incandescent bulbs, in which the light output is relative to energy consumed, an LED’s light output is measured in lumens regardless of energy consumption.

LED lights can consume a variable amount of energy, however any given LED system will have, depending on whether phosphor has been used to coat the diodes (and the amount), an optimal lumens/watt output that maximizes the life span of that particular LED system. The life span of the LED system also depends on the thermal management properties employed by the manufacturer.

Another misunderstanding of LED lighting is that there is a limited color temperature. The application of phosphor coating to a diode will give a warmer color temperature. The more phosphor applied to a diode, the warmer the color temperature of the LED.


Inadequate lighting, a safety concern because it affects depth perception, is often one of the main reasons a resident does not want to venture down a hall or leave his/her room. But adding more light does not necessarily mean it is better light and the source of that light needs to be considered for placement, glare and optimal use of a space. 

What are the best foot-candles needed for senior living and how can we meet the required light levels by using the allowable wattage restrictions?  Lighting and energy codes do not often reflect the real needs of our elders. Older eyes need 75 percent more light than those of a 25-year-old because the lens of the eye becomes more transparent. 

The eyes of an older adult become more sensitive to glare. The pupil becomes smaller and less responsive to variations in light. The lens of the eye begins to lose elasticity, which leads to loss of focusing power or lens accommodation known as presbyopia. On top of that, the lens of the eye will gradually yellow with age, making it difficult to see differences in colors like blue, blue-green and violet. Bulbs with a color rendering index, or CRI, of 80 will improve sight because of improved color rendering.

Resident lighting needs for a specific use or activity should take into consideration the amount of light needed for the activity, the needs for adjustability and color temperature. A good rule of thumb is 2900–3500K (Kelvin) for senior living environments. These same color temperatures are available in LED lighting.


In 2005, the Lighting Research Center (LRC) conducted a pilot demonstration study using innovative lighting ideas in LTC facilities. At Schuyler Ridge Residential Health Care, a 120-resident skilled nursing facility in Clifton Park, N.Y., LRC researchers installed automated LEDs to determine whether energy-efficient lighting solutions could improve the comfort and care of seniors and assist the nursing staff in their nightly rounds.

And they determined that an automated, nondisturbing lighting scheme did help residents get in and out of bed safely. The lights were used around bed frames to illuminate the floor, around door frames and in bathrooms under the mirror and the handrails. Although the idea made sense, this type of retrofit proved too costly to be readily duplicated in other communities.

In another lighting conversion, Brookdale Senior Living completed a nationwide lighting retrofit throughout 546 senior care communities, saving an estimated $5 million annually in electric utility costs and deliver a return on investment over about one year. CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) were used in a variety of applications and LED lamps were used in night lights and nurse call applications.2


In 2012, as part of a dining room renovation, our client, Barclay Friends, a division of the Kendal Corporation, replaced existing CFL recessed lighting with LED retrofit kits. Correcting the glare from the CFLs and replacing them with the warm LED lighting, with compatible dimmers, complimented all of the other objectives to the dining room renovation. With the success of this dining room project, Barclay Friends soon converted to LED lighting in other facility areas including the main conference room and the great room. Residents and staff commented on how more inviting these rooms became with the LED lighting. Continuing these efforts in 2013, additional lighting updates are planned. Over the next few years, all recessed lighting CFLs will be replaced with LED lighting. Anticipated savings with labor-reducing, longer- lasting LED lighting will be part of many other energy-reduction projects over the next few years.


Where are we with decorative LED lighting? Shall we limit its use to through-wall night-lights for our residents or downlights in the dining room and halls?  For starters, there are plenty of decorative LED fixtures in the marketplace, from crystal chandeliers to vanity lights and if you cannot find a fixture you like, LED bulbs are readily available. But just how easy is it to screw a new LED into an existing fixture? What about the “rumor” a fixture with LED lamps has to be thrown away when the bulb’s life expectancy is over? 

“The greatest impacts the LED fixtures will have on your energy bills will, undoubtedly, be in those areas where the lights are kept on all day long,” says Steve Hirshenhorn of Marty Berman Associates, a lighting specialist in Pennsylvania. These areas include common areas such as interior-corridors, lounges, activity spaces, nurses’ stations, dining rooms, entry areas and lobbies. Don’t forget the night-lights in resident rooms. Outside the facility look at parking areas, floodlighting and landscape lighting.


The closest comparison of LED bulbs to conventional bulbs is lumens! It is easy to confuse costs by comparing wattages instead of lumens. Electrical bills are based on wattages used.  But in the case of LED comparisons, the focus should be on light output in terms of lumens. 

LED was typically meant to serve as a beam of light or a direct light. So does the LED downlight produce a spot on the floor when used? We know that CFL counterparts in recessed downlights “spilled” light into the space at all angles, but some of that fluorescent lighting was lost inside the fixture. LED downlights provide a beam of light that also dissipates but since it is directed downward only, this light will produce more foot-candles onto the floor or surface to which it is pointing, than its CFL counterpart and for half the wattage.

At the end of its life span, the LED lamp burns out slowly unlike the incandescent lamp that simply burns out. Consider this fact when replacing lamps. If one lamp is replaced among several other LED fixtures, the perception of the new LED light will be brighter because it is newer. Avoid uneven light levels by replacing all fixtures in a particular area at the same time. 

Most of today’s decorative LED fixtures (vanity lights, chandeliers and sconces) are not domestically made and, therefore, may not have been built to the IES (Illuminating Engineering Society) standards. Often these decorative fixtures can be found in local home improvement stores, and an inexpensive price may be an enticing draw. But beware,  the same IES standards for quality of light output do not exist for these decorative fixtures due to their origin of manufacturing and that is why when reading online reviews about a particular chandelier or vanity lamp you will find many commenting about the inefficient light output and lack of quality. And, most decorative fixtures made overseas are made with integral LED lamping and thus, the entire fixture will be obsolete when the LED life span is over. 

LED bulbs can be used in retrofit situations however, when considering a retrofit, check to see if line voltage is on a switch or a dimmer.  Check the LED lamp specifications to ensure that the lamp is compatible with dimming. If low voltage, a transformer is involved. First check to see if the transformer is electronic or magnetic. The LED lamp must be compatible with your transformer. Also check to see if the fixture is dimmable and if the LED lamp is dimmable compatible. This bit of “homework “will resolve many issues that could lead to frustration for the maintenance crew and create the most efficient use of your new LED bulb.


Just as past lighting technologies had a range of considerations, the new LED choices have ranges from cool to warm and a multitude of optional lighting levels. Experimenting with different products, using knowledgeable suppliers, and making sure to use UL listed compatible products are all part of the process when planning to convert to LED lighting. At present, it might be more reliable to stick with the major manufacturers, such as GE, Sylvania, Ushio and Phillips. The future of LED technology will continue to get better. Like any other new product on the market, LED lighting will continue to improve in efficiency and as it is used with more and more prevalence, there will no doubt be a reduction in cost! Even though cost, energy savings and less maintenance are all key factors when considering lighting choices; it is how our residents experience the space, live in the room and function at optimum capacity that really counts. Perhaps our client put it best: “The best compliment with the LED lighting changes has been that staff and residents comment on how much better the atmosphere is in these areas.” 


1.       Sack R. LED Lighting for Interiors and Senior Living. Available at www.schemmer.com/blog/2013/01/led-lighting-russell-sack/.

2.       Reported in Environmental Leader, 12/29/10

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