During Older Americans Month, Meet the Challenges of Aging with Vision Loss

How Can We Add More “Life” to Our Life?

Science and medicine have added more years to our life, but how can we add more “life” to our years? Growing older is not just about loss and decline, it can bring new opportunities and adventures. We all want to age gracefully and maintain our independence, but what is the secret to positive aging and satisfaction in this stage of life?

Tuesday Tandem bike club members holding tandem bikes

A growing number of Americans are aging with disabilities which threaten their independence. According to the 2010 Census, almost 50 percent of respondents over age 64 reported some level of disability. Specifically, the prevalence of vision loss is growing dramatically. Further, the Centers for Disease Control, study on aging and quality of life indicated that poor health-related quality of life is strongly associated with the severity of self-reported visual impairment among people aged 65 and older who participated in the study. Participants who reported “moderate/severe” visual impairment showed a strong, consistent association with poor health-related quality of life.

So, as the research indicates, vision impairment can significantly impact your ability to remain independent, productive, creative, and engaged in your later years. But this impact can be mitigated by taking steps to meet the challenges of aging with vision loss.

Recommendations for Successfully Managing Aging and Vision Loss

  • Become an advocate. Get involved in the American Foundation for the Blind 21st National Agenda on Aging and Vision Loss. Attend the town hall meetings held by teleconference. The next teleconference is on May 10, 2017, and the topic is “Hot Topics in Blindness-Related Vocational Rehabilitation and Aging Policy and Practice.”

  • Seek services that can help you live with vision loss. There are low vision services and vision rehabilitation agencies in every state. If your vision loss is impacting your activities of daily living, such as reading, writing, mobility, cooking, and taking your medications, then it may be time to get help. You can learn new ways to use your remaining vision and preserve your independence. Many states have federal funds to serve adults aged 55 and older who are experiencing vision loss. You may qualify for services at no cost. Use VisionAware’s directory of services to find help in your area.

  • Stay physically active. Find safe and adapted ways to exercise for at least 30 minutes each day. Walking is beneficial but may be difficult with vision loss, particularly if you have not had orientation and mobility training to use a white cane safely and efficiently or have mobility impairments. Consider asking a family member or friend to be your walking partner. Tai Chi and yoga are gentle ways to strengthen muscles and improve balance. Check with your insurance to see if they offer a free gym membership program such as “Silver Sneakers” for seniors. Ask your doctor for a referral to physical therapy or occupational therapy to help you create a plan for safe physical activity and fall prevention. Exercise will keep your brain and body in shape.

  • Nurture your creative self. If you have more leisure time, it is important to learn to use it imaginatively. Creative expression fosters personal, social, and spiritual growth. This type of self-expression has many benefits to the mind, body, and spirit. Explore new activities like painting, creative writing, or dancing. Many hobbies can be adapted for vision loss with the help of a vision rehabilitation specialist. Albert Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” So have fun discovering your hidden talents.

  • Avoid isolation and loneliness. Vision loss often poses barriers—both real and perceived—to continuing relationships. You may have to work to maintain lifelong friendships. And of course, you may lose friends and family due to illness. Thus, it is important to build new relationships and connections as well. It is a special time to nurture your relationships with your partner, spouse, siblings, adult children, and grandchildren. Reaching out to young people can be especially rewarding in this stage in life. It is important to establish a support network among family, neighbors, friends, and social services. Companionship will keep you healthy, emotionally, and cognitively. Find ways to socialize through clubs, senior centers, or church activities. Call your local senior center or Area Agency on Aging to learn about services for seniors. AARP has started a new initiative to combat loneliness called Connect to Affect. Also, if transportation is an issue, consider joining the Senior Center Without Walls, in which you can participate through phone or computer! And check out a Ridesinsight, a new creative transportation solution.

  • Redefine and reinvent yourself in retirement. It is a challenge to maintain your self-identity as you age with vision loss. When our career ends and family roles change, we may ask ourselves: “Who am I now? Am I useful to my family and community?” Exploring new ways to contribute to your family and society by using your wisdom, experience, and skills is one way to stay “in the game.” There are many opportunities for seniors to volunteer in hospitals, schools, and retirement centers. Check out Senior Corps which helps connect seniors to programs and people who need them as volunteers, mentors, and companions. ReServe is an innovative program that matches professionals aged 55+ with nonprofits that need them for pay. AARP Foundation Experience Corps is looking for seniors interested in tutoring K-3 students who are struggling to read. Serving your community is a proven way to stay healthy, active, and restore a sense of meaning and purpose.

  • Recognize depression and get treatment. Research shows that seniors who have vision loss are 90 percent more likely to experience depression symptoms than those without vision problems, and about one third of seniors with age-related macular degeneration will also have significant depression. The level of depression seems linked to the person’s reduced ability to perform activities of daily living and not on the amount of vision loss. Vision rehabilitation can help a person return to independence, but if depression is present, it may be difficult to seek out services and participate fully in this training. It is important to discuss depression with your healthcare provider if you have been feeling sad and hopeless for more than two weeks duration. Consider individual therapy with a counselor to help you adjust to vision loss and cope in healthy ways. Support groups for the visually impaired can also be helpful during the adjustment process. They can provide empathy, encouragement, and education. Remember, depression is treatable. Again, if transportation is an issue, consider telesupport groups as an option.

  • Activate the power of thinking positively and proactively. How do you feel about aging and retirement? What do you believe about getting older? Research shows those who hold positive attitudes and stereotypes about aging, actually age more successfully. Becca Levy and her research team at the Social and Behavioral Science Division at Yale University found that 44 percent of people in their study on aging and disability are more likely to recover from serious health events and rebound from disabilities. They also discovered the following attributes of people who think positively about aging:
    • Increased physical functioning
    • Better self-perception
    • Greater sense of control
    • Stronger will to live
    • Increased ability to adapt problems occurring as a result of aging
    • Live seven and a half years longer
Maribel with granddaughter playing piggyback

Consider the positives to growing older! Usually, we are wiser, more confident, have learned to be flexible, and forgiving. Our world broadens as our extended family and network of friends continue to grow. And what about the joy of becoming a grandparent? Children remind us to be curious and playful. As Michael Prichard says, “You don’t stop playing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop playing.” Focus on what is good and positive in life. Look for the beauty all around you in people, nature, art, and music. Practice gratitude, and enjoy the present. Reminisce, tell your stories, and share your wisdom.

Let us not concern ourselves with finding the fountain of youth but with learning to embrace our senior years and accept life as it comes; vision loss, wrinkles, Medicare, and all, throwing in a little advocacy of course!