One in six adults older than 45 years of age is affected by low vision. Low vision is defined as a visual impairment severe enough to interfere with the independent completion of activities of daily living, but with some useful residual vision. Three eye diseases account for most low vision in adults: Macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. These diseases greatly increase in incidence as a person ages. Low vision is not correctable by glasses, surgery or medication.
However, occupational therapists can teach persons with low vision to use their remaining vision as efficiently as possible in order to facilitate safe, independent and quality lives. Jill Lingle, O.T. of Bartlett Regional Hospital Low Vision Services, explains that visual rehabilitation addresses three general areas: Lighting, contrast and magnification. "There are many helpful tips someone with low vision can learn to compensate for their low vision and to enhance their remaining vision."
For example, a gooseneck table lamp with a halogen bulb can be used in the kitchen to help clarify detail when the person with low vision is chopping vegetable or looking into a pot on the stove. A white mug is recommended in order to see how much coffee is in it and a brightly colored toothbrush can help for applying lighter colored toothpaste. All sorts of devices for magnification assist with reading medicine bottles, phone numbers, recipes, books, bills and other important documents.
Medicare will pay for Low Vision Services with a doctor's prescription. During the first visit to the occupational therapist, the client is interviewed about daily tasks and things with which he/she may be having difficulty. They are tested for their visual acuity (how clearly they see) and for reading performance, speed and accuracy. These abilities are measured so that improvement can be shown later on. The occupational therapist (O.T.) makes a plan of care with the client's input; this plan sets measurable goals, the types of treatment activities and the duration of the visits.
During the visits (which range between four and ten), the occupational therapist teaches strategies for making daily tasks easier -- how to identify medications, set appliance dials (stove, washer, thermostat), identify types of money, use the phone, take care of finances, do grocery shopping, prepare meals, do laundry, plan matching clothing -- all sorts of self-care activities which full-sighted persons take for granted.
The O.T. also explains community services and resources and demonstrates types of assistive devices that are available to use. The Juneau Public Library has a special reader that will turn any book into a talking book. The Older Blind Alaskans Program through S.A.I.L. loans out assistive equipment so that persons with low vision can try out various devices at home before they purchase them. A few examples of the many assistive devices are reading magnifiers, talking watches, check writing guides, sock locks, key caps and computer programs that make print large and read it aloud.
"There are a lot of things we can do to help people with low vision feel more independent and capable, less reliant on other people, to get out of the home more often and live full, active lives," said Lingle.
For more information about Occupational Therapy Low Vision Services, call 586-8431.
Marianne Mills oversees senior citizen nutrition and transportation programs in Juneau, Skagway, Sitka and Yakutat as a staff member of the Southeast Senior Serivice.