Written by: Joe Otts, Joe Sorensen, and Ronald E. Milliman, Ph.D.
Produced by the Public Relations Committee of the American Council of the Blind
The American Council of the Blind (ACB) is here to help you. We understand the many challenges you face as a senior citizen losing your eyesight or encountering a marked reduction in your vision. Many of us have experienced the same challenges and have found ways of coping that we can share with you.
Just about everyone experiences some degree of vision loss as they age. But if your eye problems have made simple daily tasks difficult or impossible and glasses or contacts don't help you, chances are the reason isn't just a matter of getting older. A potentially serious medical condition could be causing your low vision.
Low vision can be the result of several eye conditions. Or it can even be symptomatic of other ailments not directly related to the eye, such as diabetes.
You Are Not Alone
Severe vision loss is a significant problem affecting millions of older Americans. According to the Family Caregivers Alliance, "Nearly 3.5 million Americans over 40 have some degree of vision loss, most commonly from age-related conditions. This number is expected to double in the next few decades as the baby boomers grow older." (1) In fact, "according to the most recent Longitudinal Prevalence of Major Eye Diseases research, almost 7 million Americans over the age of 65 have severe visual impairment. Perhaps more stunning is that these same experts predict that given the current growth in the aging population that number is likely to double by 2030." (2) However, "Most people with age-related vision loss will not become completely blind; instead they will experience partial or moderate loss of vision." (1) So you are not alone.
Like many other seniors, you probably have one, or a combination, of four very common eye diseases. According to the National Eye Institute, these are:
- Glaucoma - leads to peripheral vision loss
- Macular degeneration - leads to central vision loss
- Diabetic retinopathy - causes "spotty" vision
- Cataracts - causes blurred or "filmy" vision
A senior with severe vision loss may have any one or more of these conditions. According to the institute, "age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the number one cause of blindness among senior citizens." (3)
Treatments for Vision Loss
If you have not yet seen an eye doctor, an ophthalmologist, about your vision loss, you are urged to seek medical attention immediately. Regardless, "The National Eye Institute and the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommend that everyone over age 60 get a full, dilated eye exam every two years, or more often if there is an eye disease involved." (1) Many of the causes of severe vision loss in the elderly are now treatable. Surgical treatments and eye drops are available that can reduce the pressure in the eye caused by glaucoma. Today, cataracts can often be completely reversed with surgery, and there are new injectable drug therapies that have shown remarkable results in reversing the effects of AMD.
If you have mild to severe vision loss, there are many assistive devices that can restore a meaningful quality of life. Several of these devices and everyday living aids are discussed in more detail later in this paper.
The American Foundation for the Blind recommends the following steps be taken by all seniors experiencing any degree of vision loss:
- Install task lights in cabinets, under stoves and other dark areas
- Only read or work in a well-lighted room
- Arrange furniture with clear pathways
- Install grab bars in bathrooms
- Keep lawns and gardens free from clutter, and pathways very well lit at night (4)
Accepting Changes in Your Eyesight
As stated above, as we age, so do our eyes, and this may result in vision loss. In fact, the majority of people who develop low vision or become legally blind are over 65. Of course, adapting to changes in your eyesight can be difficult and may lead to fear, frustration, and feelings of isolation and helplessness. Sometimes well-intentioned friends and family members may even contribute to these negative feelings because they too believe we are unable to care for ourselves.
Many of us in the American Council of the Blind have gone through these same frustrations, anxieties, and fears, but we are here to let you know that we have found ways of coping with our loss of vision, and with our help, you can too.
The First Step: Developing a New Attitude
Even though you may be losing your eyesight, or you have already lost your vision, you can still live a relatively normal life.
We are not going to attempt to mislead you. Yes, there will certainly be some adjustments in the way you do many things, but it does not mean you can no longer function and live a pretty normal life.
Our experience is that with the correct training and encouragement, seniors with vision loss can, and do, continue to enjoy full and independent lives. The three keys are:
- Accepting the reality of your situation
- Developing a positive, "I can do this" attitude
- Adopting the use of alternative methods
By discovering the use of alternative methods that employ your other senses, such as touch, hearing, and smell, rather than sight, you can continue to do almost everything you want or need to do.
Adopting Alternative Methods
Fortunately, most of the alternative methods are easy to learn. Also, there are many, many devices and everyday living aids that are readily available. To learn where these adaptive devices and everyday living aids can be obtained, see the resource list at the end of this paper. For instance, The Braille Institute in California offers a series of cassettes called "Sound Solutions," which is included on our resource list.
Blind and low-vision senior citizens, just like you, all across the country are successfully using practical non-visual techniques to manage everyday life to retain and regain their independence. Believe it or not, these are things that we do, and you can too:
- Discover alternatives to driving
- Prepare meals using kitchen appliances
- Dial your telephone and use your cell phone
- Continue engaging in your favorite hobbies
- Shop in stores
- Use a computer to communicate with family and friends
- Shop online
- Read your daily newspaper
- Read books and magazines
- Be able to identify your paper money
- Get around your home and other places safely and confidently
Admittedly, for those of us who were used to driving and going anywhere we wanted whenever we wanted to go, the adjustment to not being able to drive anymore was certainly one of the most difficult things to accept. However, we also realize that continuing to drive when we can no longer see well enough to do it safely is not a wise thing to do. It not only risks our own life, but it risks the lives of anyone who is in the vehicle with us, the people in other vehicles around us, and pedestrians. So, we have no choice but to learn other ways of getting around. We can use the various forms of public transportation services available. We can also ask our friends and relatives for assistance. For example, some of us have friends who let us know when they are going to the store, and we can go with them. Some of us use taxi and public bus services. No, it isn’t the same as just jumping into your own car and going, but you can still do what you need to do.
We read newspapers, books, and magazines using a combination of methods. If you still have some usable vision, there are all kinds of magnifying devices that you might be able to use, ranging from the more traditional hand-held magnifiers to more high-powered, high-tech electronic magnifying devices.
For those of us who cannot see well enough to be able to use any type of magnifier, there are many other options available to us. For instance, there are radio reading services available that we can use to listen to newspapers (see the resources section for information).
There are also several excellent services that we can use to obtain thousands of books on all kinds of topics and numerous magazines covering every subject imaginable. They are available in an audio format. There are also many devices, appliances, and everyday living aids that talk to you. For instance, there are talking watches, clocks, calculators, scales, microwaves, cell phones, thermometers, thermostats to let you control the heating and air conditioning in your home, and talking computers. There are ways of labeling items around your house to let you know what they are, like prescription containers, shampoo and conditioner bottles, and food items.
So, while making the adjustment is not easy, it can be done. There are numerous services available to help you and several places where you can obtain the adaptive devices just mentioned. Check out the resource list at the end of this paper.
Where to Start
Every state has an entity with its mission to assist blind and low-vision people. This state government entity might be a division, an agency, a bureau, or office for the blind. For a complete list of these agencies, contact:
National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, Inc. (NCSAB) (5)
4733 Bethesda Ave., Suite 330
Bethesda, MD 20814
Phone: (301) 654-4885 (5)
Your state agency can often help you with adapting your living environment, if needed, learn mobility methods, and obtain devices that will assist you with your everyday living needs. Unfortunately, most of our state agencies’ budgets have been trimmed down to the bare bones. As a result, not as many services are available as there once were, but nevertheless, your state agency should be able to either help you directly or point you to alternative resources in your area.
You can also contact your state's American Council of the Blind (ACB) affiliate. There is a complete list of ACB affiliates at its web site, www.acb.org. Or you can contact ACB by mail or by phone at:
American Council of the Blind
2200 Wilson Blvd. Suite 650
Arlington, VA 22201
Phone: (202) 467-5081 or toll-free: 1-800-424-8666
About the American Council of the Blind
We cordially invite you to join our organization, the American Council of the Blind. Founded in 1961, the American Council of the Blind is the nation's leading membership organization of blind and visually impaired people. The ACB’s membership numbers in the tens of thousands. Our members have all levels of eyesight from totally blind, low vision, to fully sighted.
ACB strives to improve the well-being of all blind and visually impaired people by: serving as a representative national organization of blind people; elevating the social, economic and cultural levels of blind people; improving educational and rehabilitation facilities and opportunities; cooperating with the public and private institutions and organizations concerned with blind services; encouraging and assisting all blind people to develop their abilities; and conducting a public education program to promote greater understanding of blindness and the capabilities of blind people.
Our flagship publication is "The Braille Forum." This is a monthly publication featuring articles on employment, legislation, sports and leisure activities, new products and services, human interest and other information of interest to blind and visually impaired people. Most articles are submitted by our members, and there is even a section where people can buy, sell, and trade adaptive devices and equipment. "The Braille Forum" is published in braille, large print, on four-track tape, computer CD, and is also available by e-mail.
In addition, the Council produces a monthly half-hour radio information program, ACB Reports, for radio reading information services. It also distributes TV and radio public service announcements highlighting the capabilities of blind people. ACB even has its own Internet radio network, http://www.acbradio.org. The programming is all produced by our members. There are both talk and music formats.
Again, we welcome you to join our organization and become a member of your state’s ACB affiliate. You will be welcomed with open arms. We can help you find resources. Remember, many of us have gone through what you are experiencing, and we can help you make the adjustment to your vision loss. We have monthly meetings, attend local entertainment events, and sometimes even dine out together.
Firms that Provide Blind-Related and Low-Vision Products
Beyond Sight, Inc
Enhances the independence of blind and reading impaired people through adaptive technology.
5650 S. Windermere St.
Littleton, CO 80120
This firm has successfully introduced several voice-enabled products like i.d. mate II, a talking bar code reader, and ScripTalk, a talking pharmaceutical reader.
1845 W. Hovey Ave. Normal, IL 61761
Freedom Scientific Blind/Low Vision Group
The world’s leader in assistive and adaptive technology for individuals who are blind, or have low vision or learning disabilities. This firm’s products include screen-reading software for the blind, magnification software for those with low vision, and other products for accessible scanning and reading, as well as braille displays, notetakers, and the world’s leading accessible PDA for the blind.
11800 31st Ct. N.
St. Petersburg, FL 33716-1805
Sales & Information Phone: 1-800-444-4443 (within US)
Sales & Information Phone: 1-727-803-8000 (worldwide)
All Products: 1-727-803-8600
GW Micro, Inc. Since 1990, GW Micro has been a trusted pioneer in the adaptive technology industry, and continues to lead with innovative, customer-driven solutions. Marketing: Window-Eyes, Braille Sense notetaker, and the portable SenseView CCTV.
725 Airport North Office Park
Fort Wayne, IN 46825
Independent Living Aids, Inc.
ILA is the oldest privately held mail-order company in the United States of products for individuals who are visually impaired or blind with almost 30 years of providing essential aids with superb service.
Independent Living Aids, Inc.
P.O. Box 9022
Hicksville, NY 11802-9022
Toll-Free Sales: 1-800-537-2118
Technical Support: (516) 937-1848
Kurzweil Educational Systems:
(Cambium Learning, Inc.)
Developed the Kurzweil 1000 (TM) for people who are blind or severely visually impaired, and Kurzweil 3000 (TM) for people with dyslexia or other reading difficulties. Kurzweil 1000 provides blind users access to printed and electronic materials. Printed documents (after being scanned) and digital files (such as eBooks or e-mail) are converted from text to speech and read aloud.
Cambium Learning Technologies
24 Prime Parkway, Suite 303
Natick, MA 01760
LS&S Group, Inc.
Specializes in products for the blind, visually impaired, deaf, and hard of hearing. You will find a great collection of low vision aids, hearing helpers, daily living aids, products for independence, resources, and information designed to help you regain independence for yourself or a loved one in your life. Adjusting to life-altering changes can be difficult. In the case of vision or hearing loss, LS&S can help you find useful products that can make a difference in your life.
145 River Rock Dr.
Buffalo, NY 14207
One of the largest distributors of products for people with special needs. They have several thousand of high- and low-tech products for daily living. Maxi-Aids has an online catalog, which is filled with over 4,000 items.
42 Executive Blvd.
Farmingdale, NY 11735
1-800-522-6294 (to order)
1-631-752-0521 (for information)
Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic RFB&D, a non-profit volunteer organization, is the nation's educational library serving people who cannot effectively read standard print because of visual impairment, dyslexia, or other physical disability.
Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic National Headquarters
20 Roszel Rd.
Princeton, NJ 08540
Organizations That Provide Information About Blindness and Low Vision
American Foundation for the Blind
2 Penn Plaza, Suite 1102
New York, NY 10001
1-800-AFB-LINE or (232-5463)
Discovery Eye Foundation
6222 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 260
Los Angeles, CA 90048
The Eye Digest
University of Illinois Eye & Ear Infirmary
1855 W. Taylor St. M/C 648
Chicago, IL 60612
111 E. 59th St.
New York, NY 10022
(212) 821-9200 or 1-800-829-0500
National Eye Institute
31 Center Drive MSC 2510
Bethesda, MD 20892-2510
Organizations That Provide More Information about Specific Eye-Related Conditions
AMD Alliance International
1929 Bayview Ave.
Toronto, Ontario M4G 3E8
The Glaucoma Foundation
80 Maiden Lane, Suite 700
New York, NY 10038
The Macular Degeneration Partnership
A program of the nonprofit Discovery Eye Foundation
6222 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 260
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(310) 623-4466 or 1-888-430-9898
Organizations That May Provide Financial Aid
American Health Assistance Foundation
22512 Gateway Center Dr.
Clarksburg, MD 20871
Eye Care America
P.O. Box 429098
San Francisco, CA 94142-9098
Lions Clubs International
300 W. 22nd St.
Oak Brook, IL 60523-8842
Mission Cataract USA
1099 E. Champlain Dr., Suite A
Fresno, CA 93720
National Association for Visually Handicapped
22 W. 21st St., 6th Floor
New York, NY 10010
243 N. Lindbergh Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63141
Organizations That May Help Find Low-Vision Specialists
American Academy of Ophthalmology
P.O. Box 7424
San Francisco, CA 94120-7424
American Optometric Association
243 N. Lindbergh Blvd.
Saint Louis, MO 63141
Resource for Caregivers
1. Family Caregiver Alliance, "FCA: Vision Loss,"
2. Dealing with Vision Loss in Seniors,
3. National Eye Institute:
4. AFB Senior Site - American Foundation for the Blind
5. National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, NCSAB Directory