Vision loss may be one of the most daunting aspects of aging. If your aging parent is experiencing vision loss or anticipating total blindness, you may feel like you don’t know how to them through it. Rest assured, there are many resources and tools to provide vision help for seniors, so they can continue living a full life.
Read on to learn how to support your loved one dealing with vision loss.
To help you and your loved one best prepare for potential vision loss, it is good to be aware of the most common causes of age-related vision loss. Each cause is unique, with its own set of vision loss symptoms and warning signs.
Glaucoma is one of the most common causes of blindness. It is caused by high pressure inside the eye that damages retinal cells. There are several types of glaucoma, and warning signs may involve headache or eye pain, nausea, and the appearance of halos around lights.
Gradual vision loss affects more than half of people with diabetes. If your loved one has diabetes, vision loss symptoms to look out for are blurry vision, eye pain, floaters (tiny spots that drift across one’s field of vision), and difficulty reading and telling colors apart.
Macular degeneration causes the gradual loss of the central field of vision. While it doesn’t cause total blindness, it can mean the inability to drive or read. Even cooking and other daily tasks might become difficult without assistance. Symptoms include sudden blurriness in central vision. An optometrist can often detect it through a dilated eye exam before symptoms begin.
Retinal detachment may be the scariest cause of vision loss, because it can develop suddenly and is an emergency situation. It is usually accompanied by vision changes including a sudden influx of floaters, bright flashes, or a curtain-like shadow obstructing the eye’s view. Contact an ophthalmologist immediately if any of these symptoms are present, so they can attempt to mitigate permanent damage.
Early detection of eye conditions can often help slow the progression of vision loss, so it’s important to prioritize routine eye exams with an optometrist.
As with any life-altering loss, significant vision loss will most likely be accompanied by a period of grieving. The loss of sight can feel incredibly isolating for the person experiencing it. If your loved one is facing inevitable vision loss or total blindness, make sure they know that they are not alone.
While you may feel overwhelmed and helpless by your aging parent’s distress over losing their vision, grieving is a healthy process that shouldn’t be tamped down or forced through. Instead, look for healthy ways to help them cope and adapt.
Here are a few ways you can help your loved one through the emotional effects of blindness and vision loss.
Although we know the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — it would be a mistake to think that they occur in perfect linear order or appear the same for every person. The stages can circle back around and coincide. Do your best to validate what your loved one is feeling, offer comfort and support, and occasionally redirect if you can.
When a person is grieving, they feel like they don’t have control. When adjusting to vision loss, it can be common for them to be short-tempered and lash out at those caring for them. As difficult as it may be, try not to take this too personally. Take a step away if you have to. Then, remind them that you’re here for them, that you’re going to help them through this, and that it won’t always feel this overwhelming.
It’s good to acknowledge when you feel like you’re in over your head. While there’s a lot you can do to help your loved one cope with vision loss, there are also some things you won’t be able to provide, and that’s okay.
It’s also important to watch out for signs of depression in your parent, which might include irritability, lack of appetite, loss of interest in things they used to enjoy, sleeping too much, or suicidal thoughts. Nearly one-third of low-vision patients have depression, according to HCPLive (formerly MD Magazine).
Depression is a normal part of grieving any loss, but it can become life-threatening if it progresses without treatment. It’s important to seek professional help before the depression becomes unmanageable. A mental health therapist can offer constructive ways to handle the adjustment, as well as recommend support groups with others who have been through similar experiences.
Additional mental health resources for vision loss:
VisionAware is an organization with the mission to provide information and resources to adults experiencing vision loss. Their partners include the National Eye Institute and the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute, among others. They offer many free resources, including a getting started guide for people new to vision loss and a list of support groups for different types of vision loss.
If your loved one isn’t in the stage of accepting their vision loss, try not to push them to make major changes to their home and routine until they’re ready. However, making small adjustments here and there, with your loved one’s consent and participation, can help them move through the grieving process in a constructive way.
Take your time working your loved one through the adaptations that will help them function better, but remember that their involvement with these adjustments is key. If they feel pushed, it may stall the process. When they’re ready, have a conversation with them about the steps you can take together to make space for this new circumstance.
There are many practical steps you and your loved one can take to adapt to this new way of living. Taking these steps will help your loved one feel more empowered, regain a sense of control, and remember that their life doesn’t have to be over.
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Tread gently with this adjustment. Handing over their car keys can represent a huge loss of independence and self-reliance for older adults. Make sure your loved one feels they have a say in this choice, and help them choose transportation options that they feel comfortable with.
For example, if they don’t feel safe or ready to try public transportation, try to arrange a carpool or ride-hailing service, schedule rides with a trusted family member, or even take public transportation with them to activities for a couple of weeks until it feels safe and familiar.
Help your loved one organize their living space and remove any clutter. Make sure that each daily use item (toothbrush, comb, phone charger, etc.) has a specific place and that your loved one can find them easily. Assemble their favorite outfits together on the same clothes hanger (slacks with a specific shirt, for example), so your loved one can easily choose their clothes for the day.
You can also help to connect your loved one with a vision rehabilitation therapist. Similar to how a physical therapist assists a person with movement and pain management after an injury, a vision rehabilitation therapist can teach your loved one the skills to function independently and can suggest helpful environment modifications relative to their amount of vision loss.
Make sure that each room and hallway has a clear and walkable path with no tripping hazards or obstructions. It can be helpful to give each room distinguishing features that don’t require vision to be recognized. For example, using uniquely textured area rugs to signal that you’ve gone from one room to the next.
Textured trim or other forms of textiles on the common touch spots throughout the home, such as on door frames or switches, can help a person with vision loss get their bearings. For low-vision abilities, you can make adaptations to the home’s lighting and color contrast. If the home contains stairs, you can line the edges of each step with a brightly colored or reflective tape.
There are a lot of low-vision aids on the market and many helpful products to help a newly blind person adjust to vision loss. Make sure you talk with your loved one’s insurance provider, because the cost of these items could be covered under your health care plan. Many of these aides are only useful with certain types and degrees of vision loss, so it’s important to talk to your loved one’s optometrist or ophthalmologist to understand what resources will be the most helpful.
A guide dog can help the visually challenged navigate their surroundings more safely or alert someone in case of an emergency. Guide dogs are always carefully placed to make sure they bond well with the person they’re assisting. Having a trusted and well-trained companion can make your loved one feel safer as they begin adjusting to their vision loss, which can also make the transition go more smoothly.
While your loved one may be nowhere near the point of requiring assisted living, especially with all of the vision support options available today, there may come a time when additional help is needed. In order to make any eventual transitions easier, it may be helpful to begin having conversations with your loved one now.
Duffy, M.A. Vision rehabilitation services. VisionAware.
The Foundation of the American Society of Retina Specialists. (2016). Retina health series: Facts from the ASRS.
Kunzmann, K. (2017, November 10). Addressing depression in vision loss patients. HCPLive.
Mayo Clinic. Wet macular degeneration.
Mayo Clinic. Retinal detachment.
Sell, James. (2018, July 18). Coping with vision loss – adapting, not quitting, is the way to go. IrisVision.
VisionAware. (2021). Getting started 2020: A guide for people new to vision loss.
Wright, D. Adapting environments for individuals with vision loss. Perkins eLearning.