The Importance of Natural Light for Seniors
Designing excellent housing and community spaces for seniors requires in-depth knowledge of all kinds of elements. Efficient, state-of-the-art healthcare is certainly important, but creative design and best practices for making comfortable spaces that flow properly are also crucial.
When it comes to designing for older residents, one area that has special significance is the amount of natural light the inside of a building has. Natural light has an impact on the sleep patterns and overall health of people as they age, and these needs are often different than what children and younger adults need.
Circadian Rhythms and the Elderly
Circadian rhythms are the body’s natural clock. People sense the passage of time in 24-hour cycles, and the brain tells the body to feel sleepy or awake accordingly. A good deal of your circadian rhythms are influenced by the sun: When your brain detects natural light — even while you’re sleeping — it sends out a flood of hormones to wake you up. Likewise, dusk and darkness trigger the body to fall asleep.
These important natural cycles tend to change for older people, and one in four elderly patients report relying on sleep medication to try to get better sleep. Sleep cycles get earlier as people age, meaning that they tend to get tired much earlier in the evening and wake up much earlier in the morning. Unfortunately, this disruption often causes older people to experience significant insomnia, which in turn leads to problems like difficulty focusing and increased risk of accidents.
Studies have shown that increased exposure to high-intensity light is related to better sleep for older people. It appears that natural light during the day can have a cumulative effect on the quality of sleep at night, and may even help to alleviate some of the worst sleep problems experienced by older people. If you wonder if you’re getting enough sleep at night, take this quiz that also gives additional tips to help improve the quality of your sleep.
Other Benefits of Natural Light
In addition to supporting healthy circadian rhythms and adequate sleep, natural light is also linked to improved mood and decreased risk of depression. Sunlight also stimulates production of vitamin D, an essential nutrient for strong bones.
Perhaps most interesting, researchers are finding that some Alzheimer’s patients are helped by light therapy during the day. Many people with Alzheimer’s disease struggle with their biological clocks and lose a significant amount of sleep, which in turn can make the disease — or at least erratic behavior — worse. Blue light boxes that simulate daylight have been shown to help reset the sleep patterns of some patients as well as blue light stimulation through the ear canal.
Natural Light in Residential Design
With all of the health and wellness benefits connected with natural light, it’s clear that designing residential buildings for seniors should be done with careful attention to the amount of daylight residents can experience each day. Features like windows and skylights are especially important for people who can no longer move well on their own. When common areas such as dining rooms and recreation centers are too dim, seniors’ exposure to the blue light they need from the sun is significantly reduced, and health problems can ensue.
Great design will use windows and skylights to optimal effect to flood common areas with natural light. This allows elderly residents to absorb as much daylight at the right color wavelengths as possible during their waking hours. Care should also be taken when it comes to bedroom design. Natural light is important here as well, especially in the morning, but care should be taken that warmer lights are used at night so as not to disturb sleep patterns by “tricking” the brain into thinking morning has come earlier.
When excellent architects and designers take into account the need of natural light on a daily basis, seniors benefit from innovative buildings that give them what they need for the best possible quality of life.