By Lisa M. Petsche
Twenty-one per cent of Americans aged 65 and over report some degree of visual impairment even with corrective eyewear, according to Lighthouse International, a leading resource on vision impairment and rehabilitation. The American Foundation for the Blind defines visual impairment as “any vision problem that is severe enough to affect an individual’s ability to carry out the tasks of everyday living.”
A number of eye conditions are associated with the aging process; the most common are macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts and diabetic retinopathy.
Visual impairment can negatively affect one’s ability to read, write, engage in activities that provide purpose or pleasure, mobilize and socialize. Eventually routine household and self-care activities may also become difficult. Resulting losses include independence, roles and responsibilities, favorite pastimes and plans for the future.
It is normal for the afflicted person to go through a grieving process. Typical reactions include disbelief, anger, fear, anxiety, guilt, frustration, irritability, inadequacy, sadness and loneliness.
Time frames vary among individuals, but eventually the visually impaired person comes to accept the reality of their situation, at which point they are ready to plan for their future and take control of it as much as possible.
Here’s how to help a relative you are caring for through this process.
- Encourage them to find an outlet for expressing their thoughts and feelings.
- Learn as much as possible about the disease and its management.
- Concentrate on what your relative can rather than can’t do. Encourage them to learn new ways of doing things and help them find substitutes for activities in which they can no longer participate.
- Assist them in maintaining important relationships.
- Allow them plenty of time to adjust to their situation and any lifestyle changes it necessitates.
- Encourage the person to seek counseling if they become stuck in one of the phases of grieving, such as anger or sadness.
Although age-related eye disease most often is chronic, there are many ways to compensate for deficits and make the most of remaining vision. Read on for some practical strategies for empowering your relative.
- Ensure regular exams by an eye care professional, and accompany the person to appointments. Encourage them to take an active role in their treatment.
- Don’t do more for the person than is necessary. Independence contributes to self-esteem and quality of life, and helps ward off depression.
- Re-label frequently accessed containers with large print.
- Ensure adequate lighting in every room, distributing it as evenly as possible. Devote special attention to task lighting – swing-arm lamps, for example – and lighting in dark spaces such as closets and stairwells. Outdoors, install sensor lights that illuminate walkways and entrances.
- Minimize glare from reflective surfaces. For example, ensure all windows have coverings and place decorative cloths on glass tables.
- Use color contrast to make objects easy to distinguish. For instance, use a dark tablecloth with light-colored dishes, and place contrasting tape on light switches.
- When you go out together, describe to your relative the view as you’re driving, as well as any unfamiliar environments you enter. Ask what they can and cannot see; don’t make assumptions. If they are nervous about navigating in public, suggest they hold on to your elbow and walk half a step behind you.
- Provide the person with a pen light or lighted magnifier for reading in poorly lit locations, such as restaurants.
- At home, leave doors fully open or completely closed, and put items back where they belong. Seek your relative’s input before rearranging or adapting the environment.
- Perform a home safety assessment to identify potential hazards – for example, clutter and lack of proper stair railings – and do what you can to rectify them.
- Arrange for an assessment by a low vision specialist who can recommend adaptive techniques and devices. The latter include large-button phones with speed dial, large-print calendars and talking watches.
- Find out about organizations in your community that assist the visually impaired. Consult your relative’s eye doctor or local office on aging, or call Prevent Blindness America toll-free at 1-800-331-2020. Even if your relative appears to be managing sufficiently at present, it’s a good idea to start learning about resources in the community that may be of help in the future.
Lisa M. Petsche is a social worker and a freelance writer specializing in boomer and senior issues.