Creating New Vision with Visual Impairment
A friend recently reached out to me with a situation that is far from uncommon, but as with almost any scenario where you are dealing with people, unique for her and her loved ones. Her grandmother, recently returning home from a hospitalization, had a change of condition in regards to what her care needs were. In addition, the new status brought with it rapid progression of the vision loss that seemed to have been chasing her for several years. Deflated, her grandmother now found herself cognitively as sharp as ever, yet found life frustratingly dull not being able to do the things she used to enjoy.
Helpless, my friend reached out to me for suggestions- what could she do? Being the natural caregiver she is, she had offered to learn braille with her grandmother as a way to bridge the gap. Halfheartedly, 93 year old Dorothy had agreed to this, but it seemed more for her granddaughter's sake than for her own. Her family was coming up short and needed direction. I gave her the following suggestions.
1. Develop strategies for adapting and coping.
In many seniors, the vision loss they experience is not reversible, and can be a huge blow to their sense of agency and independence. As if it isn't bad enough to look in the mirror and see a breaking-down version of your self as you remember, now when they look in the mirror they may see only a blurry silhouette of themselves looking back. As family members supporting our loved ones, it's important to take their lead and let them direct the way they want to cope with their new world. Some may be able to joke about it, some may want to pretend nothing has changed. Some may feel their world is over.
If your loved one is able to cope in a healthy way that doesn't break their spirit, follow their lead. If, on the other hand, they fall down a rabbit-hole of "I can't even" and "I won't be able to", refocus, as best you can, their language onto strategies they can use to adapt.
2. Use the resources available to you.
There are tons of organizations and tools that are out there to help specifically seniors with low vision. Below are some of my favorites.
There are a lot of rules for making things easier to read, see, and identify for seniors with low vision or visual impairment. A general guideline is to use large, bold, black, sans serif typeface on a neon/bright yellow background for signs, reminders, etc. In addition, there are some products you can buy cheaply that can make big changes. Below are just a few.
4. Find new ways to keep them engaged.
If low vision is something new for your loved one, this is going to be difficult and most likely met with some resistance. Imagine what it must be like to not see, or to barely see, and imagine how that would affect your attitude, drive to do things, and willingness to try new things. It's beyond what we can imagine. This is where you really have to know your person. I am not suggesting that you pop your mom, who has never enjoyed or been interested in art of any kind, into a sculpture class. That being said, who knows that she wouldn't like that? She may! But, to ease your way in, start with something that makes sense based on past interests and passions. Below are a few things I've found to be successful, but the truth of the matter is that there is very little you can't make into something. Meaning, even if your dad thinks he can't cook anymore, he can probably still choose a recipe, shop for the groceries, mix ingredients, taste and adjust with minimal help from you or someone else. Just because grandma thinks she can't read anymore doesn't mean she cant enjoy books. You get the picture. See my list below.
With a library card, you can check out a dozen of these at a time. If your loved one has access to digital, you can use Audible.com
-Word in a Word This game is fantastic for everyone, and is a staple in most Senior Living Communities. Check out this website for the rules and for word suggestions. Remember that if you are playing with someone that has low-vision, it may be helpful to write out the word on bright yellow paper with large bold black marker for them to look at as a reference.
-Great Courses These classes allow mom to continue engaging cognitively, without any visual requirement. Check out the offerings on their site.
-Laughter Yoga Full disclosure, Nira Berry is a friend of mine. However, the benefits of Laughter Yoga are immeasurable regardless of who your instructor is. What I like about Nira's practice is that you can use it as an audio guide without the picture. You can buy her DVD here or check out her website here.
-Music Therapy/ Drum Circles/ Bell Choirs Whether it's loading an iPod full of songs from your loved one's favorite artists (if you do this music therapists suggest using songs from when your loved one was in their twenties) or taking them to the nearest senior center for an interactive drum circle, however you can incorporate music that makes sense for their lifestyle will be beneficial. If you're at all musically inclined yourself, and if you have some family members that are willing to help, you can put together an inexpensive drum circle kit or buy some basic hand bells and music and do this as a family!
5. Give them your time. Of all the tips, products, and ideas on here, the most important and singularly most powerful thing you can give to a loved one with visual impairment is your time. This may mean visiting more often, calling them, or even just being more patient and understanding that their world not only looks different from ours but also sounds, smells, tastes, and feels different. Recognize that the time that you spend with them, the time you spend listening, encouraging, guiding, and reframing is ultimately the thing that will change their vision for the future.