Falling leaves and cooler temperatures aren't the only signs of the changing season. As the days get shorter, the amount of natural light decreases, leaving even the sunniest homes darker and in shadows. And the amount and quality of available light can make a significant difference in how well millions of older Americans with vision problems see and manage daily activities.
Studies show that changes in vision accelerate after age 50. More serious problems, such as age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy (a complication of diabetes), optic nerve disease, eye injuries and other conditions affect close to 20 percent of adults from the ages of 65 to 74 and more than a quarter of those older than 75.
Older eyes are less able to change focus quickly and more likely to experience blurred vision. The elderly also have more difficulty seeing clearly in shadowy spaces and adapting to different brightness levels when moving from room to room. Steps or furniture may be harder to spot, creating hazards inside and outside the house.
Making the most of natural and artificial light is especially important in autumn and winter, said Jean Festa, coordinator for the Low Vision Rehabilitation Center at Masonic Care in Wallingford, Conn.
"People often rely on sunlight to help them see," Festa said. "They position their chairs by windows to get the maximum amount of light for reading or stand by a kitchen window to prepare food. When the seasons change, it's important to reassess your space, add additional lighting sources and make other changes in your environment."
For example, be sure you have adequate lighting especially near stairs, hallways, kitchen and bathroom. Remove tripping hazards. Don't run phone or extension cords across rooms. Clean up clutter on the floor and repair any broken floorboards, tiles and steps and tears in linoleum or carpet. Remove or secure scatter rugs. Clean lighting fixtures and replace any burnt-out bulbs.
"Something as simple as opening drapes or shades and increasing the bulb wattage in some fixtures can help," Festa said. "And don't be afraid to leave the lights on. A generation that has been taught to conserve can find that difficult to do."
But while simple changes and techniques can greatly enhance a person's ability to complete tasks, more or brighter light is not always the solution, according to the experts at Lighthouse International, a New York research and advocacy group for individuals with vision problems. For people with cataracts, for example, brighter light can cause glare, which makes seeing more difficult.
Fixtures using compact fluorescent bulbs, such as those marketed by Ott-Lite, can be good for people with vision problems, Festa said. The Florida company's Vision Saver Plus technology was pioneered by photo-biologist John N. Ott, who developed time-lapse photography while working with Walt Disney and focused 40 years of research on how different wavelengths of natural light have positive and negative effects on plants, animals and humans. The Vision Saver Plus line, which features a low-heat, low-glare illumination, is sold at lighting and office-supply stores and includes floor and table lamps, as well as a portable task light with an attached magnifying glass.
"Halogen, incandescent, compact fluorescents and fluorescent lights all illuminate very differently," Festa said. "It's important to try a variety of light sources to see what works best for your own particular situation,"
Additional suggestions from Lighthouse International:
* Flexible lighting such as gooseneck, swing arm or adjustable height lamps can be positioned close to work or reading materials to shed appropriate light on specific tasks.
* Under-counter lighting increases visibility for kitchen, study or work areas.
* Use caution handling halogen lamps, which can get hot. People with a reduced sense of touch should choose other types of lighting fixtures.
* Minimize the use of shiny floor finishes and highly polished surfaces to reduce glare and reflections.
* Keep lights on during the day to equalize lighting from indoor and outdoor sources.