The National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health reports that 4.2 million Americans age 40 and older are visually impaired. By 2030, this number is projected to soar to 7.2 million, and of these 5 million will have a condition known as low vision, in which prescription eyeglasses, contact lenses, medication and surgery cannot correct one’s vision.
To help foster support, proper treatment and vision rehabilitation for people living with diminished eyesight, the National Eye Institute and the National Eye Health Education Program dedicate February as Low Vision Awareness Month.
Causes of low vision
Low vision occurs more readily as the eye ages. Cleveland Clinic notes, “One in six adults over age 45 has low vision; one in four adults over age 75 has low vision.” Because of a number of eye disorders and injuries, anyone of any age can be affected by low vision, but older adults are at highest risk for impaired vision. The American Optometric Association (AOA) lists common causes of low vision, including:
Macular degeneration, the deterioration of the retina’s macula, which is responsible for sharp central vision. The retina is the back lining of the eye where images are focused. The AOA states that macular degeneration is the primary cause of blindness in people over age 50. It’s estimated more than 1.6 million older Americans experience the condition. Some people inherit a juvenile form of macular degeneration, while cigarette smoking and poor nutrition are suspected to contribute to the age-related form.
Diabetic retinopathy, damage to blood vessels in the light-sensitive retina tissue caused by diabetes. Initially, diabetic retinopathy causes no symptoms or only mild vision changes but can cause blindness. Maintaining tight blood sugar control is the primary treatment; laser and surgical treatments may slow progression.
Glaucoma, which is an increased internal pressure inside the eye that damages the optic nerve. If caught early, glaucoma can respond to drug treatment or surgery to minimize vision loss.
Cataracts, a cloudy section of the eye lens that leads to murky or fuzzy vision and sensitivity to glare. Aging, injury, disease, inherited conditions and long-term exposure to ultraviolet light can cause a cataract. In an otherwise healthy eye, a cataract can be surgically removed and an intraocular lens implanted to help restore vision.
Other eye conditions that can cause low vision include retinal detachment, brain injury, eye cancer, albinism and inherited eye disorders such as retinitis pigmentosa.
Symptoms of low vision
Individuals with low vision experience varying degrees of sight loss, from problems with glare to almost complete blindness. Types of low vision can affect the central vision; peripheral (side) vision; night vision, making it difficult to see at night or in dimly lit areas. Partial sight can also present as blurred vision or hazy vision, which appears as a film or glare across the field of vision. A person may show signs of low vision if they are wearing glasses or contact lenses and still find it difficult to:
• See clearly in well-lit areas. (Or, the person may feel that lights are dimmer than normal.)
• Identify the correct color of clothes or other objects.
• Read the print on signs (traffic, building, directions, etc.).
• Do close-up work such as reading, turning dials, sewing, fixing household items, etc.
• Go up and down stairs.
• Walk on bumpy or uneven surfaces.
• Pick up objects without over- or under-reaching.
• Get food onto a fork or keep food on a plate.
• Pour liquids without spilling.
“Low vision makes everyday life a challenge,” said Cathy Queen, RN, Right at Home of the Rivercities. “It’s difficult to dress, read, write, cook, watch TV, and just function well around the home. Getting out to shop and socialize often requires careful planning and assistance. For anyone experiencing low vision, it is important to stay current with an eye care specialist and develop a coordinated support team of family and professional caregivers.”
The impact of low vision
The Vision Council estimates 20 million Americans are affected by cataracts; 2.07 million have age-related macular degeneration; 7.6 million suffer from diabetic retinopathy; and 3 million have glaucoma. The council sets annual direct and indirect costs of low vision disorders at $68 billion annually including healthcare, lost productivity and diminished quality of life. Vision loss is associated with higher fall rates, restriction of daily activities, and depression.
The promising news? Up to 80 percent of cases dealing with visual impairment are preventable. With annual comprehensive eye exams, an eye care provider can diagnose and treat many eye conditions early, which may delay or prevent vision loss.
An annual eye exam is the crucial step in eye care. If there’s a family history of low vision problems, more frequent exams may be needed as may a referral to a specialist in low-vision disorders.
Helping older adults with low vision
Family, friends and professional caregivers can help an older adult with vision challenges to maintain their lifestyle and vision as much as possible, including regular eye exams, prescribed treatments, and vision aids. Other tips to help:
• Add non-glare lighting. Specialized lamps and bulbs reduce glare and improve contrast. A clip-on or small gooseneck lamp works well for direct tasks such as reading and crafting. Under-the-counter lighting is beneficial in kitchens and larger work areas. Add night lights in bedrooms, bathrooms and hallways to help prevent tripping and falling.
• Use large-print labels on medication bottles, pill dispensers and other frequently used objects.
• Simplify household organization. Place commonly used items in a designated spot so the senior loved one can find them easily.
• Juxtapose light and dark colors to make it easier to discern items. For example, use darker bath towels and washcloths to contrast with lighter tub/shower tiles and flooring. Add brightly colored tape to the edges of steps.
“It is not always obvious what a loved one with low vision needs, so regular, open communication with caregivers is essential,” Queen explained. “As vision fades, verbal cues and directive speech become vital. Living with any form of visual impairment takes some time to accept and adapt to, so we encourage family members and our in-home caregivers to be patient in helping the loved one maintain a positive outlook and remain as self-reliant as possible.”
About Right at Home
Founded in 1995, Right at Home offers in-home companionship and personal care and assistance to seniors and adults with a disability who want to continue to live independently. Local Right at Home offices are independently owned and operated and directly employ and supervise all caregiving staff, each of whom is thoroughly screened, trained, and bonded/insured prior to entering a client’s home. Right at Home of the Rivercities is a locally owned and operated franchise office serving the communities of Huntington, Ashland and Ironton. For more information, contact Right at Home of the Rivercities at RaHRivercities.com or by phone at (304) 453-4663 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.