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Aging Often Means Decline in Vision and Need to Learn to Live a Little Differently

‘Cases of diabetic retinopathy among people aged 65 or older will quadruple to 9.9 million’ - State Independent Living Council Stresses You Are Not Alone

Feb. 22, 2013 - For most people, age brings a decline in vision. Some of the most frequently diagnosed age-related diseases trigger the loss of vision or blindness, including cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in The State of Vision, Aging and Public Health in America that cases of early age-related macular degeneration are expected to double by 2015 to 17.8 million for those ages 50 years and older. Cases of diabetic retinopathy among people aged 65 or older will quadruple to 9.9 million.

While navigating the environment as one ages can be challenging, navigating it while losing one's sight can be exponentially difficult. According to the National Center on Caregiving, nearly 3.5 million Americans over 40 years of age experience some vision loss, most commonly from age-related conditions. This number is expected to double in the next few decades with the aging of baby boomers.


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"Losing one's vision can create a real sense of isolation, but it doesn't have to," said State Independent Living Council (SILC) Executive Director Liz Pazdral. "Independent Living Centers (ILCs) throughout California offer programs and services that assist and train individuals on how to effectively navigate their environments, which leads to maintaining their independence and self-reliance."

Paul Van Doren, Executive Director of the Community Access Center in Riverside, has first-hand experience in working with individuals who have lost their vision through aging.  The Center offers a Senior Low Vision Program funded by an OIB (Older Individuals who are Blind) grant, which provides skills training, peer support or adjustment counseling and assistive technology or adaptive and rehabilitative devices for people living with disabilities, such as vision loss. 

"As seniors start losing their vision, they have to learn to do things differently," explained Van Doren. "We meet with them, establish their goals, offer training and show them available equipment. For example, they have to mark commonplace items such as their clothes, thermostat, washing machine and cooking appliances. Or they can no longer drive and want to start using the bus. 

"This is where we come in.  We show them how to effectively identify typical items in the home and how to use the bus system, which may include riding with them until they are comfortable."

Van Doren summed it up by stating, "People get stuck when losing their vision and feel isolated because they can't drive any longer or read the newspaper, something they did every day of their life.  We help them develop the skills to get "unstuck" and live an independent life again."

In addition to the training services, many of which are provided in the home, the Center offers peer support counseling where an individual living with a disability helps another such individual. Van Doren, who went blind at the age of 30, believes in the value and understands the impact of this service. 

"Our philosophy is that someone living with a disability can relate better to another person who has gone through similar challenges and knows the experience first-hand," said Van Doren .  "For example, the individual providing peer support to someone with vision loss may suggest the use of a talking watch or computer or audible labeler because he or she has used these devices and can emphasize their value.  This gets individuals thinking more positively about their circumstances."

The Center has three offices and three vehicles to serve a large county. Through the OIB grant, the Center has been able to serve, on average, 100 individuals yearly while providing information and referral services to hundreds of other individuals.   

Debbie Hansen, braille instructor for the Disability Resource Agency for Independent Living (DRAIL), also serves people within a six-county spread who have or are losing their vision. In fact, she believes it is her calling since becoming visually impaired as an elementary student. Teaching individuals to read, write and print braille through a block grant from a local sorority, Omega GNU, Hansen introduces individuals to numerous resources, teaches them how to access available resources and shares experiences with them.

"People come into the classes disoriented and wondering what is going to happen to them, where will they go and what will they do with their lives," commented Hansen. "I reassure them that they can do everything they are doing now, but do it with their eyes closed. They soon learn they can keep track of finances and other personal data as well as correspond with the federal, state, city and county agencies that recognize braille."

Hansen is quick to point out that DRAIL is not just about braille and computers, even though they offer computer classes for the visually impaired who can no longer read large screens or rely on screen reading programs such as JAWS or Window Eyes.  "It's about accessing resources to continue doing what they are doing and to let them know that there are people still working who have lost their vision," reinforced Hansen. "This gives individuals hope and confidence to continue doing what they are doing."

DRAIL also offers peer-to-peer counseling. "Talking to someone who has gone through the same things is comforting," said Hansen. "This, combined with braille and the multitude of available resources, opens up the world for people living with disabilities."

Hansen described a case in point where an individual came to her in tears and didn't have much hope. Although she was working, she was concerned she was going to lose her job or that her employer would give her significantly diminished responsibilities causing her income to either disappear or be significantly reduced. 

According to Hansen, "She enrolled in my class and while learning braille, she discovered, 'I can do this, and I can use braille for a particular part of my job.' She was motivated to learn, and over the course of about seven months, I witnessed her transition from feeling hopeless to going to work with a strong sense of confidence."

Socorro Arroyo-Merchain, Program Manager for the Dayle McIntosh Center's (DMC) Aging with Vision Loss Program (AVL), is proud of their program that offers training and services to adults 55 years of age and older who are experiencing vision loss. Through OIB funds, DMC supports the full participation of individuals facing vision loss by offering home-based independent living skills training.

With the increase in diabetes and diabetic retinopathy, AVL offers a particular specialty of adaptive diabetic equipment training.  

"In addition to assisting individuals with vision loss," said Arroyo-Merchain, "we also offer training to individuals on how to manage diabetes with the use of an accessible, talking glucometer, which they can't see. We introduce seniors to talking glucometers, insulin pens, disposable lancets and other assistive technology devices that will enhance their independence and prevent secondary and tertiary health complications."  

With California's network of ILCs offering a variety of services and programs to individuals experiencing vision loss, they can be comforted knowing there are resources and options that contribute to leading an independent life.

   Source: California State Independent Living Council (SILC)

   > National Council on Independent Living

   > Family Caregiver Alliance


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