The future is brighter than ever for older Americans living with vision loss. Enhanced vision rehabilitation services offer a wide array of devices, resources and referrals to community services and benefits. In addition to core vision rehabilitation services, including daily living skills, orientation and mobility, assistive technology training and more, today’s vision rehabilitation providers also offer programs and support to help ease the adjustment to vision loss and maximize engagement with family, community and professional life.
Building on the Basics: The Low Vision Exam
Older adults with an eye disease diagnosis who have some remaining vision can access a low vision specialist. This eye care professional is usually an optometrist and sometimes an ophthalmologist who has received specialized training. The low vision specialist will perform an examination to determine how remaining vision is being used and how it can best be optimized, through magnification, devices and lighting tailored to each person’s unique circumstances. Everyone is different, so two people with the same eye disease diagnosis often use their remaining vision differently.
An older adult diagnosed with a serious eye disease may experience increased anxiety or depression, socially isolate, and perhaps even contemplate moving into a nursing home. Finding strength and hope through support groups and professional counseling enables those recently diagnosed with low vision to overcome initial fears concerning vision loss and draw on their lifetime of resilience to adjust, cope, and re-engage with family, friends, work and community.
Help from a professional in the vision rehabilitation system is key to accessing services available for older adults with vision loss.
Although most older adults likely know someone with an eye disease diagnosis, they may not know someone with severe low vision or blindness who is working and thriving. Professional counseling sharpens the focus on how to continue enriching activities, albeit in new and sometimes non-visual ways. Some communities offer peer support groups led by professionals or older adults with years of experience successfully managing with little or no vision. These groups can be inspiring and instructive.
Accessing Added Benefits
A vision rehabilitation agency may offer a benefits counselor to enroll older adults in services linked to vision loss. Library services are available for books on disk or CD, and Paratransit services offer vital transportation options. Those diagnosed as legally blind (20/200 acuity or less in both eyes or a visual field of 20 degrees or less) may also be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance, which sometimes provides a higher monthly benefit than Supplemental Security Income.
Increasingly, communities offer subsidized housing specifically for people who are legally blind or disabled. And there are volunteer programs to help with reading mail or accompanying adults to appointments. Some communities have developed intergenerational programs where young people and older adults provide vital help and support to one another.
Continuing to Thrive at Work
Many older adults are working past age 65, which is also true for older adults with vision loss. In 2022, the employment rate of the ages 55 and older workforce increased to 41.1%, surpassing the 2019 pre-COVID rate of 39.1% (which had been rising steadily since the mid-1990s). States have a division or commission to help individuals of all ages with severe vision loss or blindness. States also can provide non-vocational rehabilitation and vocational rehabilitation for people with disabilities who wish to continue working. The vision rehabilitation network is tied to the vocational rehabilitation system in each state to assist with work readiness and job placement.
‘Vision loss alone is no reason to seek nursing home care.’
Older adults with vision loss can receive help keeping their job by learning to do tasks differently or to transition to a new position or different type of work. A vision rehabilitation agency can help adults who have so much left to contribute decide which options work best for their individual goals and circumstances. In 2022, 27% of legally blind job seekers assisted by VISIONS were 55 years or older, and that number is steadily growing.
Tony Rios struggled, at first, to accept his vision loss and reached out to Vibrant Works, a vision rehabilitation agency, for assistance. “I wanted my independence back.” Rios now works as a machine operator and said, “This was a huge accomplishment. I love my job!”
Tapping into the Aging Network and Other Key Resources
Many programs funded through the Older Americans Act also can help older adults with vision loss. Connecting these adults and their unpaid caregivers to the local unpaid caregiver program funded by the Area Agency on Aging can provide excellent support and services. Some older adults with vision loss may act as caregivers, and would welcome support, or they may rely upon family, friends and neighbors who also can benefit from this program.
An increasing number of adult centers are being specially adapted to welcome and support those living with vision loss and other disabilities.
Vision loss alone is no reason to seek nursing home care. The Aging and Disability Resource Center in your state may provide information to access home care or nursing home placement when dementia or other chronic conditions, including incontinence, require additional help.
A Full Life Ahead
While a diagnosis of low vision can feel daunting, a rich and rewarding life lies ahead for older adults with vision loss. You can help them find the pathway that best suits them in this new chapter of life.
Please visit Time to Be Bold to locate vision rehabilitation services and other crucial resources in your area. Speak with someone at the APH hotline for support. Explore practical coping strategies for everyday tasks, engage in remote discussion groups, and access free online material at APH Connect Center and VisionAware. You can also learn how the Aging and Vision Loss National Coalition addresses crucial issues facing older adults with blindness and low vision.
For more information on The Reality of Aging and Vision Loss in America, how Vision Rehabilitation Can Complete the Continuum of Care, and Vision Rehabilitation—Help and Hope, read the first three articles in this series by VisionServe Alliance.
Nancy D. Miller, LMSW, has 50 years’ experience in the vision loss field, and is executive director/CEO of VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired in New York City. She co-chairs the Public Awareness Committee of the Aging and Vision Loss National Coalition and is editor of Vision and Aging: Issues in Social Work Practice (Haworth Press, 1991). She has won the Lifetime Achievement in Social Work and the Migel Medal in the field of blindness.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Robert Kneschke