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Colours for the elderly


Determining which shade of paint best suits a specific space should be done not only by considering the area and its particular use but the individuals who will be using it as well. As we age we tend to look at life differently – and we literally see it differently as well. The lenses of our eyes begin to yellow, causing a reduction of clarity. Pale colours and colours of similar intensities become more difficult for the aging eye to discriminate, so a higher contrast in colours may be needed to discern various items around us.

As well, the muscles that control our pupil size and reaction to light weaken, causing the pupils to become smaller and less responsive to changes in ambient lighting, says eyecare specialist Dr Gary Heiting. “Because of these changes, people in their 60s need three times more ambient light for comfortable reading than those in their 20s.”

Elderly people who spend a good deal of time in pale surroundings with little contrast may find themselves feeling depressed by the drabness of the colours they perceive. As they become less active, with diminished eyesight and hearing, they may also feel less secure. That’s one reason why we tend to lean towards more intense, warmer colours as we get older.

Colours for the elderly

Resene Bittersweet

“When you’re younger you tend to look for colour, so you test yourself and use some of the brighter colours,” says interior designer and colour consultant Debbie Abercrombie.

“Then when you get to the middle ages, like me, you typically don’t want anything demanding. I’ve gone from having reds and oranges in my home – I want to just come home to neutral right now. My life is busy, and a lot of colleagues are in my position. We still like colour around us but maybe splashes. But older people, I’m finding, want more colour again – warm rich colours. They are looking for warmth and security. Because life is probably quieter and less demanding, they have got more time and they want colour back in their homes. Maybe they are not getting out and about as much.”

Richer colours also address the need for brighter light in rooms, as vibrant colours bounce more wavelengths of light back to the eye than low saturation colours do. Richer colours can easily be introduced via walls, décor and accessories. A warm brick fireplace with comfortable chairs in rich golden colours evokes a warm, cosy atmosphere, for example.

Debbie often works with warm colours like reds, golds, browns and greens. From the Resene Karen Walker paint palette, she utilises colours like Resene Sanguine Brown, a soft earthy red-brown, Resene Sorrell Brown, a warm golden beige, Resene Kina Brown, a darker salty brown, and Resene Calm Green, a dense green-grey.

Resene Sanguine Brown
Resene Sanguine Brown
Resene Sorrell Brown,
Resene Sorrell Brown
Resene Kina Brown
Resene Kina Brown

“One fellow I worked with liked his honey golds and duck egg blues. They are still soft colours but they’ve got a richness in them, a depth to them. They are not a wishy-washy blue.”

From the Resene The Range Fashion Colours fandeck she highlights Resene Bluegrass, a soft mid-tone green with a touch of Kentucky chalky blue in it, Resene Westwood, a fresh earthy green oxide with a touch of avocado and salad greens, and Resene Port Phillip, a lichen green.

Resene Bluegrass
Resene Bluegrass
Resene Westwood
Resene Westwood
Resene Port Phillip
Resene Port Phillip

“Those are blue greens as opposed to a blue blue, because the blues are cold. I’m not looking at blues as such, but the blue greens they seem to like. No greys and no blues.”

In the practice of colour therapy, blue has a relaxing, calming effect on most people, but research shows that blue rooms are also perceived as cooler than rooms painted in warm shades.

“That’s why they may choose the reds, the golds and those greens that I’ve suggested. They are warm colours,” says Debbie.

Interior designer Karen Fergusson says that while everyone is different, typically most of her older clients like warm colours too.

“The last retirement home I did I was going to put in some softer cushions in the lounge but a lady said, ‘Oh, we want bright. We want happy.’ So I went and got oranges and bright colours.”

For lounge areas, warm colours such as terracottas and rich golden hues help to promote interaction.

As well as bright accessories, tactile fabrics like velvet, and neutrals with texture are also well received, says Karen. She used a neutral wallpaper with texture – Resene Wildlife 25309 – in the main lounge of the retirement home, which her clients loved. The carpet was a mossy green with a fleck in it.

Resene Wildlife wallpaper

Resene Wildlife 25309 wallpaper

“I also had leopard skin on a couple of chairs, but it was in a very soft tan colour. They could have gone brighter but I had orange cushions. And I did another in a floral pattern with orange. Then we did some paintings on the wall and they were quite bright. I went into warmth like that. They loved the warm colours.”

A higher colour contrast on surfaces, such as floor and benchtop or chair and accessories, allows contrasts between colours to become more noticeable to the aging eye. Low contrast colour or monochromatic schemes make it more difficult for the older eye to determine where the edges of objects start and finish. Using rich, warm colours and combinations helps the older eye to distinguish the differences.

In addition, matt surfaces are often a better option than glossy ones. Older eyes are more sensitive to glare. If we simply add brighter light to rooms to enable us to see better, we may actually be creating greater reflection and glare. Matt surfaces will go a long way to solving that problem. Interestingly, textured surfaces absorb a lot of light as well.

Pattern is another option. Floral patterns, in particular, can evoke the tranquillity of rural life and the simplicity of times past.

“I recently did a sofa that a lady is going to recover and she chose quite a strong large-scale pattern for it,” says Debbie. “I’ve done several like that in which they are happy to bring in pattern.”

Whichever colours you choose, Karen stresses that the older generation are no different than others.

“The older people don’t want to be old,” she says. “They want to be like everyone else.”

Which means utilising contemporary colours, fabrics and wall coverings – just as you would for yourself.

Colours for the elderly   Warm rich colours suit elderly people
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