More Older Americans Will Experience Low Vision. Here’s How to Make Life Easier and Safer

The number of older Americans with low vision is expected to double in the coming years, as more people live longer. Low vision describes reduced vision that can’t be restored with glasses, contact lenses or surgery. People with low vision may have loss of clarity, blind spots in their central vision or loss of side vision that can make it difficult or impossible to drive, read or see faces. But the tragedy isn’t that people have lost vision, it’s that most believe nothing can be done to improve their quality of life. The American Academy of Ophthalmology and the Wilmer Eye Institute are taking the opportunity of September’s Healthy Aging Month to let people know they can retain their independence and stay safe, despite a decline in vision.

Age-related macular degeneration is one of the leading causes of low vision. Other common contributors include diabetic eye disease, glaucoma, neurologic disease and inherited retinal diseases. Whatever the cause, vision rehabilitation helps people make the most of their vision so they can live as independently as possible.

The field of vision rehabilitation has advanced significantly over the years, offering improved expertise and more effective technologies. Seeing an eye doctor who specializes in vision rehabilitation is an important first step. Today, specialists can offer solutions that include a spectacle change, a video magnifier that can enlarge text and objects, and high-tech glasses with cameras that allow people to see TV and faces.

But there are many simple changes people can make on their own to help them live better:

  • Improve contrast. Put dark place mats under white place settings, buy rugs that are a contrasting color with the floor, and use kitchen towels and cutting boards that contrast with the countertop. Place contrasting colored tape along the edges of rugs, stairsteps and lamp shades.
  • Enhance lighting. Every year, about 3 million older Americans are treated for injuries from falls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of these falls are caused by low vision. Add lighting to staircases and dark hallways. Remove rugs from hallways to prevent tripping. Task lighting in the kitchen can make food preparation safer and easier.
  • Reduce clutter and organize. A cluttered house is more difficult to navigate and can contribute to falls and frustration. When each item has a specific place and is identified with a high-contrast label, it’s easier to locate items needed for everyday living.
  • Embrace technology. Books on tape and personal voice-activated assistants, such as Siri, Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa, can be enormously helpful for people who can no longer see well enough to read, dial a phone or set a thermostat.

Most importantly, see a low vision specialist to determine the full extent of functional loss and explore strategies and devices that can help best manage individual challenges.

Unfortunately, many patients are referred as a last resort, once their vision is quite poor and the disease has advanced to a late stage. Vision rehabilitation, however, is effective when introduced at the beginning stages of loss in vision and function, as the solutions are typically simpler, less costly and allow the patient to adjust and engage in problem-solving earlier in the process.

“The prospect of being unable to drive, read or see loved one’s faces is frightening and can lead some people to withdraw from life,” said John D. Shepherd, M.D., a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. “While there isn’t one strategy or tool that works for every person, vision rehabilitation offers hope. It can help people stay in their homes and keep doing the things they love to do.”

Judith E. Goldstein, O.D., director of the Lions Low Vision Research and Rehabilitation Center at Wilmer Eye Institute, says that although vision rehabilitation cannot restore sight, visual function improves in nearly half of patients who access services. “This is about quality of life and independence,” says Goldstein. “Often even incremental improvements in reading a cellphone or computer, seeing TV, and even driving can reduce frustration and provide a sense of connectedness to daily life.”