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How a Visual Rehabilitation Specialist Can Help Your Parent

Casey Kelly-Barton
By Casey Kelly-BartonNovember 9, 2018

More than 6% of Americans age 65 and older have a vision-related disability. If your parent is among them, you may wonder how you can help them avoid falling into depression, maintain their daily routines and stay active. The solution may be a type of therapy many people haven’t heard of yet: visual rehabilitation.

Learn more about visual rehabilitation services and how the therapy can help your parent or senior loved one’s vision.

Visual Rehabilitation

Earlier this year, Aging and Vision Specialist, Pris Rogers, spoke with A Place for Mom about helping parents cope with recent vision loss. In that conversation, Rogers also talked about the different types of specialized therapy that can help seniors with severe vision impairment — if they and their families know how to find these services.

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The overwhelming majority of seniors who could benefit from visual rehabilitation therapy never get it, Rogers says. That’s because the general public — and even many doctors — don’t know that visual rehabilitation services exist or are unaware of the types of therapies that are available.

A lack of program funding limits visual rehabilitation services in communities across the country and then seniors with vision disabilities assume nothing can be done to make their daily lives better. It’s important to track these services down because there’s a lot of help to be had, Rogers says.

What Visual Rehabilitation Specialists Can Do

There’s more than one type of visual rehabilitation specialist, each focused on helping people with a different aspect of daily life.

Your parent may benefit from working with one or more of these kinds of professionals:

  1. Certified low vision therapists (CLVTs) help patients with limited vision learn to use assistive technology, magnification tools and special lighting to make their living and work spaces easier and safer to use. If you’d like more information on low vision therapy or are having trouble finding a CLVT near you, contact the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER). Their Low Vision Rehabilitation division serves physicians, therapists and other professionals who work with low-vision patients.
  2. Certified orientation and mobility specialists (COMS) focus on helping patients master the art of safely navigating their communities. These professionals teach people with severe vision impairments how to use GPS, guides and long canes to get around on foot and to use public transportation safely. AER has more information about certified orientation and mobility specialists and the type of training they receive.
  3. Certified visual rehabilitation therapists (CVRTs) help patients learn new ways of approaching everyday tasks that they’ve done for decades, like bathing and grooming, cooking and eating, using the phone and other activities. Perhaps the best-known example of someone doing the work of a visual rehabilitation therapist was Helen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan.

What about occupational therapy? Visual rehabilitation therapists work a little differently from occupational therapists, Rogers says, but occupational therapists with training in vision loss can also help patients learn ways to make daily tasks like bathing, cooking and dressing easier.

Where You Can Find Visual Rehabilitation Therapists

Now that you know what visual rehabilitation therapists can do, you may want to find one to help your parent with activities of daily living (ADLs), safer living at home or mobility. But with these therapists in short supply, where should you start your search?

Rogers recommends several possibilities:

  • Ask your parents’ doctor if they can recommend a visual rehabilitation therapist. If your parent has an occupational or physical therapist, you may want to ask them for recommendations, too.
  • Local and regional nonprofit groups (such as Maryland’s Low Vision Center or Vision Forward in Wisconsin) provide information, services and support group information.
  • Online databases and lists, like the nationwide support group directory maintained by VisionAware, can help you find local resources. Support groups can be a good source of information on local therapists.
  • States get federal grant money for the Independent Living Services for Older Individuals Who Are Blind program. Despite the name, people who aren’t blind but have severe vision impairments can also get help through these programs. To find out what program services are available near your parents, call 2-1-1 or contact their state’s health and human services department.

Finding a visual rehab therapist to help your parent can take time, but the results can be well worth the effort.

Besides the practical skills that your parent can learn, Rogers says they can also feel freer to get creative when it comes to adapting.

“Sometimes [after vision loss], people get too scared to let their practicality come through. Learning ideas for coping can spark more ideas” and help your parent reclaim some of their sense of self-reliance.

Has a visual rehabilitation specialist helped your parents or senior loved ones? What was the experience like? We’d like to hear your family’s stories in the comments below.

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Casey Kelly-Barton
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