Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Is It Cognition or Is It Vision Loss? by Guest Blogger DeAnn Elliott

DeAnn Elliott working on her laptop

DeAnn Elliott is a blogger for The Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts, where she graduated in 2007 after losing her eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa. Via her posts to The Carroll Center blog and other sites, DeAnn explores the adventures and challenges of vision loss as it relates to family life, employment, rehabilitation training, disability advocacy, and sometimes dogs.

Learn more about DeAnn at The Carroll Center website, where you can read her full biography and explore the archive of her blog posts.

In Out of Sight, Out of Mind, which first appeared as a guest post on the Vision Loss and Personal Recovery blog, DeAnn shares her thoughts about the ways in which the progressive loss of eyesight in older adults can be misinterpreted by family and friends. It is reprinted here with permission.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

It happened again this morning. My teenager told me that I’d left the cream cheese in front of the toaster, instead of putting it back in the refrigerator. I do that sometimes. When I was young and could see, I “remembered” because I saw it as I cleaned up the kitchen after breakfast, but when you are blind or have low vision, you don’t have the same visual clues.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” as they say.

cream cheese on a kitchen counter

Caption: A tub of cream cheese sits open in front
of a pop-up toaster with a package of bagels beside it.

When I could drive, I sometimes put my car keys in an unusual place. I scanned the room visually and usually found them without too much fuss. I don’t drive now, but I’ve discovered that if I put my house keys in a weird location, it can take a very long time to pat down the room to find them!

Memory Problem – or Vision Loss?

I became blind at the age of 41, after enjoying a lifetime of mostly good eyesight. It was clear to me and to others that I didn’t have a memory problem. For many seniors experiencing vision loss, however, the distinction isn’t nearly as clear.

Vision loss can easily mimic dementia. Family and friends may believe that a senior is not as mentally sharp as she was in her youth. Seniors may doubt themselves too, since gradual vision loss is sometimes hard to detect and you can’t get into someone else’s body to see how the world looks through his eyes.

A lot of what we think we “remember” is visual. It’s the reason that manufacturers put those little indicator lights on appliances. Think how loudly sighted people would protest if ovens got left on all night and the coffee always tasted burned because companies decided to save money by doing away with those lights. Given how much blind people have to remember, it’s a wonder things get turned off and put away as often as they do!

If “grandma” doesn’t recognize someone she met last Sunday and gets lost trying to find the ladies’ room in a restaurant, she might be confused, or she might have “fuzzy” vision – caused by age-related macular degeneration, for example – that makes it hard to recognize faces and details in the environment.

Vision loss can make it challenging to identify colors. If someone is 20 years old and wears mismatched socks, he’s making a fashion statement. If he’s 75, it looks like “grandpa” is losing it!

As baby boomers approach retirement, and as life expectancy continues to increase, a growing number of seniors will experience age-related forms of vision loss, such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and cataracts.

Transitioning into Vision Loss

If you’re feeling frequently misunderstood by friends and family, you might want to consider the following tips for making a smoother transition into vision loss:

  1. Get regular eye exams and know the facts about your eye condition.

  2. Implement some non-visual habits and strategies for “remembering” things you’re likely to forget, such as putting your keys in the same place every night, asking people’s names and telling them you don’t recognize faces very well, or always wiping down the counter in front of the toaster after breakfast to scan for AWOL refrigerator items!

  3. Be proactive by being a good self-advocate. Good communication with your family and friends will help them understand what you need. If your vision is changing and the person you’re talking to hasn’t seen you in several months, update her on your new status.

  4. Don’t compromise your safety or well-being by trying to live up to others’ unrealistic expectations of you, or your own hopes for how you wish things were.

  5. Understand that there’s a non-visual way to do almost everything you did when you could see.

  6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, even if you’ve always been an independent person.

  7. Avail yourself of rehabilitation services in your community and region, such as The Carroll Center, or use the VisionAware Online Directory to locate vision rehabilitation services in your area.

  8. Learn something new. Computers and technology have opened a world of possibilities for people with vision loss.

  9. Seek out other seniors who are going through the same thing. It can be difficult to give up hobbies you’ve always enjoyed or feel unable to share something with your grandchildren. Being around people who “get it” can be enormously helpful in maintaining a positive self-image and staying connected.

  10. Reinvent yourself! Vision loss might not have been a part of the dream you had for your golden years, but if it’s part of the current landscape, own it – and make it a part of your new identity.

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