ParentCare » Vol. 32

Let there be (more) light!

By Teresa Burnett

c10534_farley-sink_xbigIt’s no secret that as we celebrate the fact that people are living longer, more active lives, we should also acknowledge the changes that come along with aging. Starting around 40, we begin to notice little changes in our vision. There’s no fighting it; it happens to all of us to varying degrees.

One way to address the challenges to our visual perception is to add more light. As simple as that sounds, it’s often not even a consideration. Augmenting available light can be done simply, but it may require guidance from someone fluent in lighting planning. If people don’t know how lighting can offset vision loss, then they probably don’t know what questions to ask. We don’t look for solutions when we don’t “see” a problem in the first place.

Recently, Deb and Marty asked for my help in selecting some new colors for their townhouse. They plan to live in their lovely home for many years and wanted to freshen it up a bit. Deb and my mother have been close friends for more than 60 years.  I took a special interest in this project because Deb has always been like an aunt to me.  I’ve seen them often over the last few years, but haven’t been to their home in a while. I was shocked when I stepped into their foyer and the door closed behind me. All the lights were on, but I was standing in a very dimly lit space.  Not only was the foyer dark, but the stairway was dimly lit, as well.

The conversation immediately changed from the need to select colors to a more urgent need regarding safety for this wonderful couple in their early 80s. The first thought was that perhaps some bulbs had burned out in their ceiling fixtures and replacing them had posed a challenge for the couple. But that wasn’t the case. These dim culprits were actually new fixtures. Deb and Marty had allowed some “experts” into their home to update their lighting needs.

A few months earlier, they had received information from their power company, along with their bill, about a free energy audit that included fixtures and light bulbs. Who wouldn’t jump at a free offer, especially when you’re planning to make some upgrades anyway?  Deb and Marty were delighted to take them up on the proposal. They were pleased that what had been promised was exactly what was delivered. New fixtures were installed and there wasn’t a bill to worry about. That should have been the end of a happy story, but upgrades should be improvements. That wasn’t the case here.

Focusing on energy conservation is a noble undertaking, but creating a safe environment for everyone should be the first consideration.  As we plan for aging-in-place scenarios, there’s a more comprehensive audit that’s necessary.

Lighting is a major part of that plan. Layers of lighting should be applied in most living areas, no matter what the stage of life.  As we start noticing the print getting smaller and focusing sometimes requires a little more squinting, it’s time to plan an overall review of the home, with lighting being the most important element of the strategy.

All lighting plans should include a focus on layering available light. This almost always means adding fixtures, and those additions should happen at various heights in the room.  We start by integrating three types of illumination to address the layering in each room: ambient, task and accent lighting.

Task lighting defines an area where we do work, whether that work is preparing a meal or doing a crossword puzzle. Accent lighting is accomplished with table lamps, wall sconces and directional ceiling fixtures that highlight art or a focused area. Ambient lighting is that all-over illumination that fills the room with light. Its source can be a fixture that’s flush or semi-flush with the ceiling, pendant lights or multiple recessed ceiling fixtures. Many homeowners claim to hate ceiling fixtures, but they are necessary at certain times and shouldn’t be avoided. Ceiling fixtures should be installed with dimmers, if possible.

img_1823Deb and Marty hadn’t heard anything about the function of the fixtures that were installed. Energy conservation was the only criterion, and I’m guessing that the auditor didn’t have much of a background in lighting. As we discussed the drab and dangerous stairway and foyer, it became obvious that a new plan was needed. Scrap the new fixtures and start again!

We came up with a plan that integrated their lighting needs with an energy-efficient and attractive solution. The flush-mount fixtures that we selected also provided a style esthetic that was more in keeping with their lovely home. People often make the mistake of selecting a fixture solely on the basis of the esthetic without any thought to the actual light that’s provided.

Foyers and stairways are areas where dimmers should never be installed. Stairways should always be fully illuminated with lighting both in front and in back of you as you descend the stairs. Lighting that is pleasantly bright and doesn’t cast shadows should be the goal on the stairs.

Coming up with a lighting plan on your own probably won’t do the trick. Seek out someone who really understands lighting to help with the plan. Start by taking an inventory of what lighting options you have in place in each room and think about how you actually live in each space. This project should be done after dusk so that you can really experience where the deficits are.  You can take your list to a lighting store, but they can only respond to what you have uncovered.  It may be more complicated than that.

There are other sources to help, if you’d rather have someone do a true audit for you. Certified lighting designers, interior designers and some electricians are well-versed in this process and can introduce solutions that will address all of your problem areas.  Some local senior centers and visiting nurse agencies provide services that help with a safety audits. These audits may include many other issues beyond lighting, such as the placement of grab bars and the removal of scatter rugs and other impediments to safety. If these agencies don’t do it themselves, they will likely be able to refer you to someone who can provide the service.

Once the new lighting installation was complete, Deb and Marty could get back to their original focus: color.The project is finished, and the walls are beautiful inviting colors that get rave reviews from their friends. There’s always a sense of satisfaction when a project is finished, but this one was especially rewarding because the changes were so much more than cosmetic.

Teresa Burnett is principal of Willow Designs ( based in Norwell, Mass.  As a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design Interior Design program, she has a strong background in all design styles. Extensive travel to the cities, countryside, manor homes and museums throughout the United States, France, Italy, England, Ireland, Mexico and tropical locations continues to inspire and inform Burnett’s design aesthetic.  She is past President of IFDA (International Furnishings and Design Association), New England and currently serves on the IFDA National Board of Directors.

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