Escaping from a darkening world

What can be done when vision fails

Life After 50

October 06, 2002|By Korky Vann | By Korky Vann,Special to the Sun

Three years ago, when the vision in her right eye started to become cloudy, 85-year-old Georgia Just didn't know what was happening. She'd had the same pair of glasses for years and had never had any serious problems with her eyesight. Suddenly faces were blurry, household tasks were increasingly difficult, and reading and watching television were impossible. A retinal specialist told her she had developed a blood clot behind her eye. Laser surgery helped stabilize her remaining eyesight, but couldn't restore the vision she'd lost.

Just had become one of 14 million Americans diagnosed with "low vision" -- a visual impairment not correctable by standard glasses, contact lenses, medicine or surgery -- that interferes with the ability to perform everyday activities. The condition affects 17 percent of adults between ages 65 and 74 and 26 percent of those age 75 or older.

Age-related macular degeneration accounts for nearly half of all cases of low vision, followed by cataract, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy (a complication of diabetes), optic nerve disease and eye injuries. But experts say the condition affects more than eyesight.

Daily life becomes complicated when people are unable to read their mail, check price tags and prepare food. Health and safety can be compromised when older adults are unable to recognize medications, read labels or make out stove or microwave dials. Many seniors also experience depression, fear, anxiety, loss of independence and social isolation as a result.

"I couldn't see faces, couldn't thread a needle, couldn't read, couldn't balance my checkbook, couldn't do the things I loved doing," says Just, a retired hospital clerk. "It was like I was living in a dungeon."

Jean Festa, coordinator for the Low Vision Rehabilitation Center at Masonic Care in Wallingford, Conn., says the condition often comes as a shock, especially as in Just's case when it comes on suddenly.

"The term 'low vision' can be confusing both to those experiencing it and their families. There's a lot of misperception around what low vision is and what can be done to help those affected by it," Festa says. "Low vision can't be corrected by conventional methods. But with rehabilitation, helpful devices and home modifications, individuals can maximize their independence."

Festa says those with low vision can benefit from adjustable lighting, highly magnified prescription reading glasses, large-print publications, closed- circuit televisions (which enlarge printed materials onto a monitor screen), and hand-held and standing magnifiers. Simple modifications, such as the use of black felt-tip markers, writing tablets with bold lines, phones with oversized numbers and talking clocks are also helpful.

Low vision specialists at the rehabilitation center evaluated Just's condition and abilities, and made home visits to determine which devices would be most helpful. With training on how to use the various aids, Just says, she was able to resume many of her favorite activities, including watching television, sewing and doing her beloved word puzzles.

"I was liberated," Just says. "I came out of the dark, literally."

Korky Vann writes for The Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

The Eye Site

The National Eye Institute has launched a major public education initiative, a traveling exhibit called the Eye Site. The exhibit, which is visiting shopping centers across the country, provides information on low vision and help that is available. For information, visit www.nei.nih. gov.

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