Every winter we drive grandma home from church after the evening sermon, but this year it’s been different. She asked me to turn on the flashlight on my phone for her until she opened the door to her courtyard. Then I had to walk with her with the light on until she climbed the stairs, opened the front door and entered her home. She’s more afraid of darkness than ever before. But I think I know why. Our vision will decline with age and probably if I were her, I would much appreciate an extra light, too. Living with low vision in her two-story house will definitely prove challenging in the future.
Fortunately, we have just found a real estate agent on The Official Real Estate Agent Directory® to list her house for sale. To make her life easier, grandma has agreed to move into a small 1 bedroom condo closer to us.
Since grandma turned 70 years old we could see her visual acuity starting to decline. In her youth, she never had to wear glasses. She must have had perfect acuity, which ophthalmologists usually refer to as 20/20 vision – a person standing twenty feet away sees exactly what a normal person sees at 20 feet. Even with the best correction possible, visually impaired people have a vision of 20/70 or worse on the Snellen chart – an eye chart developed by the Dutch ophthalmologist Herman Snellen in 1962.
This means that the person undergoing the test must stay 20 feet away to see clearly what a person with normal vision can sharply see from 70 feet away. Before we had decided that grandma could have a better life in a smaller place, which is less than a 10-minute walk from our house, we also thought about various home improvements for her house. In the next paragraphs, we will share them with you.
Of course, we don’t know if grandma’s declining vision acuity is due to the natural process of aging or the side effect of her medication. Some pills do have eye toxicity and some can even increase the pressure inside the eyeball leading to glaucoma – “the sneak thief of sight”. Glaucoma is dangerous because it has no symptoms. It silently damages the optic nerve, producing large blank spots and eventually complete blindness. But the leading cause of blindness in people over 60 is macular degeneration – the deterioration of the central retina.
This disease affects more than 10 million Americans and unfortunately, it is not curable. It is not clear what leads to the loss of central vision, but researchers found that smoking doubles the risk of age-related macular degeneration. Another disease that affects the eyes is diabetes, so if you or a family member suffers from diabetes, make sure to have your eyes checked for diabetic retinopathy regularly. Diabetes increases the risk of bleeding in the eye which blocks the light and prevents it from reaching the retina, causing blurred vision or even blindness.
What is the criteria for being legally blind?
Blindness is often understood as complete darkness, but in practice, there are several degrees of vision loss. The visual acuity of a legally blind person is 20/200 or worse, so most legally blind people still have some sight. Total blindness is quite rare – it accounts for only 15% of legally blind cases. Living with low vision makes even the most simple tasks, such as tying shoelaces or picking food from the refrigerator, impossible to complete. So, most legally blind people can distinguish between light and darkness. But legally blind people also have a very narrow visual field. A normal person has a visual field of 140 degrees, whereas a legally blind person has a visual field of 20 degrees or less. This means that, in order to see the complete image, that person would have to turn his/her head.
For your peace of mind, as long as glasses or contact lenses can correct your sight to 20/20 vision, you are not legally blind.
How can we help visually challenged persons?
We were thinking a lot about home improvements for our grandma’s house. The cost of implementing some of them was not huge, so no need to use a personal loan or a home equity loan/home equity line of credit (HELOC). Most home improvements for visually impaired people are quite cheap and easy to put in place.
Our grandma’s house is very crowded, with a lot of furniture wherever you turn. First of all, we will have to organize a garage sale to get rid of some of it because we are not going to fill her new condo with sofas, coffee tables and chairs – from now on, she needs clear, empty space. It was not too hard to convince her of this.
We would also have to put lights under the stairs to make them more visible especially at night. She usually falls asleep in her favorite chair in the living room. But she also has the bad habit of waking up at night due to insomnia so she comes downstairs to eat, drink or watch TV in the living room. Actually, she’s been complaining about the stairs lately so we are thinking about installing LED strips under each tread. A one-story house is more suitable for a visually impaired senior living alone, even though a two-story house is perceived to be more valuable, more upscale.
Grandma has a white kitchen that we love, but we’ve repeatedly told her that she had to give up white and ivory plates because she often spilled the food. We don’t want to cover the furniture with a darker fake wood film, either. Besides, it seems that home-buyers prefer blue, soft grey-blue or yellow kitchens so we will have to paint the walls anyway to make sure grandma gets the most dollars for her house. Although white is good for her vision because it is a highly contrasting color – and contrasts help. Grandma also has to give up any patterns to make things easier to find when they fall on the floor or on the couch. No more fancy patterned upholstery!
We are learning so much as we try to decorate the new condo! We will buy some flexible LED lights with a rheostat control (which allows the control of light intensity) so that grandma can point them exactly where she needs light. I never really liked goose-neck lights, but grandma will find them useful for sure. As we get older, it’s not about what we like, but about what’s practical and useful. Living with low vision does require good lightning all around, but also less glare. So no fancy shiny furniture for grandma’s condo, no shiny countertops and matt tiles instead of glossy ones.
Doors will be highlighted with a bright contour, and we have already spoken with the HOA board members about the need to place luminance contrast strips on the stairs that most of the elderly people living in that building will find useful in equal measure. Home safety for visually impaired should be of utmost importance in most HOA.
Best gifts for visually impaired
It will be hard to make elderly people adopt the latest technologies, but in the US, only 16% of the population is not digitally literate. However, people living with low vision must rely on other senses, as well. They will do everything to help themselves continue their favorite hobbies and activities.
If you want to surprise a persona with low vision or legally blind, here are some products they will find useful:
Google and Amazon are at war with their revolutionary products designed to help and entertain visually impaired people. Will Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant become the new friends of the empty nesters and visually impaired? So far, Amazon has sold over 100 million devices, so electronic devices with voice control have proven their utility. From now on, we can only expect better versions of them.
Electronic digital magnifiers
Reading has never been easier with these devices. Other options are the new Kindle Fire HD devices with pre-installed Alexa.
People living with low vision will need a way to identify their medication. There are some devices on the market that help with this. Some of these amazing devices are Walgreens Talking Pill Reminder, Talking RX Personal Talking Prescription Device, AccessaMed, and Take-n-Slide – a pill box that reminds you if you took your medication or not with seven switches (one for each day) that need to be slid from left to right when taking the pill.
House maintenance is a never-ending chore that becomes a burden for people with low vision. Cleaning is not only about wiping the dust off furniture, TV and floors. It’s also about minor repairments and pest control. A long-term contract with a cleaning company should guarantee that the house will get a thorough cleaning regularly. People living with low vision will definitely appreciate this kind of help.
Depending on the degree of vision loss, kitchen utensils and appliances designed for people with visual impairments will allow the person to cook independently. For gifts, think about electric kettles, talking microwaves, talking kitchen scale, boil alert disks, jar openers, and black and white cutting boards. But if the loss of sight is significant, maybe you should hire a cook to come and prepare the meals. The cook may follow your doctor’s recommendations or listen to your preferences. With or without dietary restrictions, grocery shopping could be a lot facilitated by the use of reading devices like OrCam. Artificial intelligence is going to make life so much easier for those who are visually impaired or legally blind.
Large printed objects and tools
From timers to grade cups, everything that has a large contrasting font is going to be used more frequently. New objects and tools for the blind are invented every year, like The “Braun” Bell Mug – a mug that chimes when the mug is full, thus allowing a blind person to fill a mug perfectly without getting wet or spilling water all over the place.
Service dogs for people living with low vision
Those who have not lost their sight completely can win a new friend – a service dog or a guide dog. This new pet will require daily maintenance and care. The dog must practice its skills every day or else it will forget everything. Those who want to get one should attend a special guide dog school where they’ll learn how to benefit from the guidance of a trained dog. Three breeds make the best guide dogs: Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever and German Shepherd. These dogs are trained to:
- keep a straight route, at a steady pace, ignoring distractions
- find curbs and corners
- avoid obstacles
- stop at the bottom and top of stairs
- find elevators
- board buses and subways
- obey the commands of the handler
So the handler decides the route and controls the dog, not the other way around. Moreover, the guide dog doesn’t know when it is safe to cross a street. The handler must take that decision and the dog will help him/her cross the street.
Designing a house for a blind person
Visually impaired people are people with special needs who deserve the best quality of life. Architects and real estate investors have to find ways to make their buildings more friendly with people who live with a disability. With about 60 million people struggling with a physical disability, America is in need of special needs housing facilities more than ever. But what these people need is not as much independence as it is the need to surround themselves with love and affection. They don’t need someone to tell them how to do something every single moment. They need companionship. The best gift for a visually impaired person is your time. Even though he/she will never be able to distinguish your face, your presence will suffice to comfort their hearts. And that is true, even if you’ll have to leave your loved one in a retirement home.
The older we get, the more we realize that it’s not our possessions that bring us joy and happiness, but the people on whose shoulders we can lean our heads and the hands that caress our hair even if it’s undone. For those living with low vision, like our grandma, downsizing and decluttering is the best way out of an empty large house.