Leave it to the owner of a lighting company to have an actual “lightbulb” moment, but this “sudden realization” happened to Suzanne Cavanagh.
A few years ago, Cavanagh felt she had lost some of her passion for her business, Century Lighting, in Springfield. But she realized she just needed to see things in a new way.
Now, she works to share her new knowledge about the difference natural light can make in a person’s life, including for those living in a local memory care community.
Cavanagh and her husband Joe bought their business more than 10 years ago. They sell and install lighting in commercial buildings. One year, Cavanagh worked with a business coach on goals for the upcoming year. The coach asked what it would take to have a spectacular year.
“My response was that I wanted to figure out what my passion was,” she says, “not thinking it would have anything to do with lighting. Turns out light was my passion, and now I’m all about finding ways that people’s lives can be improved through light.”
While attending a lighting conference, Cavanagh learned about the impact of light in a hospital’s neonatal unit. That got her thinking about some of her experiences and how lighting could help others to lead happier, healthier lives.
“I had been a hospice volunteer and I thought, if light could make a difference in the NICU, could it have made a difference for the patients on hospice I had visited? Could it have made a difference for my grandmother and father-in-law?” Cavanagh says of their Alzheimer’s disease. “So, I started studying light. I became a member of the Human Centric Lighting Society and I started seeing all this research being done on how light impacts us. I knew that’s what I was supposed to be doing — helping people understand light and how to live well with light.”
She’s now a certified as both a lighting specialist 1 (LS-1) through the National Association of Independent Lighting Distributors (NAILD), and as an executive home modification specialist (commonly known as aging-in-place) through USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. These credentials allow her to develop lighting programs in both residential and commercial properties that help improve the health, productivity, happiness and safety of the people who work or live there.
Until about 125 years ago, humans have lived with natural light. Sunlight determined when we woke up, went to bed, and even how energetic we were during the day. Now, artificial light from lightbulbs, televisions, phones and computers bombards our eyes and brains all day. Many workplaces have no windows at all.
Sunlight has the full spectrum of colors, which consists of cool, high-energy blue light of mid-day; and the calming, warmer colors of sunset and sunrise. Blue light is necessary during the day for alertness, but undesirable at night when it can suppress melatonin and disrupt sleep.
Sunlight naturally waxes and wanes in intensity throughout the day. However, traditional electric light doesn’t change; it is static, keeping the same color and intensity whenever it’s on.
“Melatonin makes us want to sleep,” Cavanagh says. “To suppress melatonin you need blue light, which is why on bright, blue, sunny days you just feel energized.”
Circadian lighting is a lighting system that utilizes the full spectrum of color and intensity, designed to mimic sunlight. It uses a very small GPS tracker and an automatic adjuster to provide a light that gradually increases or decreases in color and intensity every six seconds — a way to replicate the natural patterns of daylight.
The shifts are so gradual they are not noticeable.
Research on circadian lighting is abundantly clear: It improves productivity, can help improve caloric intake, aid aging eye issues, and more. Workers who experience circadian lighting throughout the day report better sleep at night. Students with circadian lighting in their classrooms scored better on tests that required higher visual acuity, such as math and reading. Some sports teams are experimenting with installing circadian lighting in their facilities to improve performance and lessen the effects of jet lag while traveling.
Now, the lighting is being tested on older adults.
Last fall, Cavanagh partnered with Liz von Wellsheim, gerontological nurse practitioner and owner of ElderHealth and Living in Springfield, to install circadian lighting in Birch Home, one of its memory village homes.
“As soon as we put it in the staff (told us) the residents said they felt like they were outside,” von Wellsheim says. “They spent more time in the room with the (new) lighting fixtures and they said it made them feel good. I think it’s great. I think people are happier in that house than the others.”
Von Wellsheim is interested in anything that might improve the health and mood of her residents. She knows that older eyes need more light to see, and that better lighting should decrease falls and other vision problems related to low light. Previously, ElderHealth and Living used the standard fluorescent fixtures. Now, they’re embarking on other improvements, including adding more skylights.
“I think seniors are stuck indoors more and don’t get that melatonin and serotonin from being outdoors and in natural light,” von Wellsheim says. “They can be constantly in artificial lighting, which affects their mood as well as their sleep. With our folks, when people’s moods are affected, they’re cranky and they may act out and become aggressive. Anything I can do to improve that, I want to do.”
Soon, Cavanagh will place circadian lighting in four other homes at ElderHealth and upgrade the Birch Home with an improved system.
With these upgrades, von Wellsheim plans to gather data about the new lighting.
“Theoretically I think it should work for adjusting people’s biorhythms to help them sleep better at night and be more alert during the day, which is always challenging with older folks,” von Wellsheim says. “I haven’t been able to prove that yet, but I think it’s going to work. And I really like the light.”
Hearing that the residents at ElderHealth and Living not only liked the improved lighting, but that it made them feel better, was an emotional moment for Cavanagh. “It’s doing what it’s supposed to do,” she says. “For offices, this will be key. For schools and medical facilities, this technology is a gamechanger. I believe within 10 years this is going to be what lighting is because everyone is going to understand the health benefits of it so much more than they do now.”☸
Century Lighting, 550 Shelley St., Suite G, Springfield. Call 541-726-5994 or visit centurylightingoregon.com.