February Is Low Vision Awareness Month
Seniors who have been told there's no treatment for their vision loss should know that there's still plenty they can do to remain active and independent.
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society called attention to the effects of low vision on the lives of older adults. Loss of vision makes it difficult for seniors to function independently. It also has a profound effect on their physical and mental health, because as vision declines, seniors are much less likely to take part in the physical and mental exercise that keeps them well.
To these seniors, the National Eye Institute (NEI) emphasizes that even if the diagnosis is low vision—defined as "visual impairment that cannot be corrected by standard eyeglasses, contact lenses, medication or surgery"—it's not time to give up and take to the couch!
We are all at higher risk of serious vision loss as we grow older. The NEI reports that more than 4 million older adults today are visually impaired, and with the aging of the baby boomers, that number will rise to more than 7 million within a decade or so. Common causes of vision loss in later years include:
- Age-related macular degeneration
If you or an older loved one notices vision problems, such as difficulty reading the mail, watching TV or recognizing people, the first step is to visit an eye doctor for a thorough exam. Some vision loss can be halted or even improved. For example, Harvard researchers recently reported that cataract surgery—now much more common and effective than it was in earlier years—is a large factor in the increased independence enjoyed by seniors today. The study authors noted that only improved cardiac care has had such a comparable, profound effect.
However, for a number of eye conditions, there is no effective treatment. It can be a dreadful blow when the eye doctor says, "Nothing more can be done for your vision." When that happens, a senior might descend into depression, inactivity, loss of independence and an overall decline in health. But the NEI wants these seniors to know that help is available! Said NEI director Dr. Paul Sieving, "I encourage anyone with low vision to seek guidance about vision rehabilitation from a low vision specialist." Just as a person who's diagnosed with a mobility disorder can use a walker or wheelchair, seniors with low vision can take advantage of effective ways to continue doing many of the things they love.
What is vision rehabilitation?
Vision rehabilitation helps people maximize their remaining sight and learn compensatory strategies to help them continue living a safe, productive, independent and rewarding life.
The vision rehabilitation team will most likely include:
- An optometrist or ophthalmologist who specializes in low vision
- Occupational therapists
- Orientation and mobility specialists
- Certified low vision therapists
- Social workers
Vision rehabilitation might include:
Training in the use of optical and electronic magnifying and other adaptive devices. Magnifiers, telescopes and special glasses help patients make the most of remaining vision. Patients also learn about accessible reading materials—everything from large-print books to screen-reading software.
Developing strategies to navigate around the home and in public. People with low vision tend to stay close to home, which puts them at risk of social isolation and inactivity. Orientation and mobility specialists help them function safely in the home, venture out into the community, even to travel alone if they like.
Learning new daily living skills for safety and independence. Occupational therapists and vision rehabilitation therapists help people with low vision learn new ways to do things. This might include everything from cooking to medication management. These specialists also help adapt the home and other environments. For example, improved lighting can help people see better—but it's important to tailor the lighting to the person's individual visual condition. Innovative home adaptations, such as raised markings on the controls of appliances and large-print buttons, make it easier to cook, do laundry, and operate electronic equipment and other gadgets.
Resources and support. It can seem a little overwhelming to put together a care team. And upon diagnosis, say experts, depression can stand in the way of seeking help. Counseling helps patients develop coping and problem-solving skills. Support groups for people with low vision are a great way to be with people who can offer tips and share experiences.
Family and friends also can benefit from education and support as they provide care for their loved one. They can assist in adapting the home, and in accompanying their loved one out and about. Families who use in-home care services can work with their professional in-home caregiver to keep their loved one safe while supporting independence. For example, the caregiver can prepare meals for a client with low vision—but even better, if the client loves to cook, the caregiver can serve as a kitchen assistant, providing help as needed.
Graphics courtesy of the National Eye Institute.