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The Low Vision Low Down

How Occupational Therapy Can Help

By Mary Schwartz, OTR/L

“We just can’t make your glasses any stronger.” To many individuals with low vision, this is a frequently heard statement from eye care professionals. It is estimated than one in four people over the age of 80 are affected by low vision. As the population ages and life expectancy increases, low vision has become the third leading cause of disability in older Americans. Most of us know someone whose life has been altered by severe vision loss. But few people know that there is something that can be done about it.

Low vision is defined as a visual impairment that cannot be corrected by eye glasses, medicine, or surgery that interferes with the ability to perform everyday activities. The most common conditions are macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and vision loss from stroke.

People with severe vision loss have difficulty performing simple daily tasks that many of us take for granted. Reading medication bottles, writing checks, or setting the dials on the stove can be nearly impossible for someone with low vision, even with the use of corrective glasses.

While many of these conditions are irreversible, this does not have to mean a loss of independence or quality of life. If you are experiencing vision loss, the first step is to contact your eye care professional.  An ophthalmologist can diagnose and treat eye disease and may prescribe medications or surgery to address vision related conditions. An optometrist can diagnose eye disorders and prescribe glasses, low vision devices, or vision therapy. It is important to find an eye care professional that specializes in low vision. Your doctor may then recommend that you receive additional low vision training through a vision rehabilitation teacher or an occupational therapist.

Why Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapists are rehabilitation professionals who are uniquely trained to help clients achieve the highest level of independence despite disability or impairment. Many occupational therapists now have specialized training in low vision. A low vision occupational therapist (OT) can evaluate the home environment, provide treatment, and teach compensatory strategies so that the client can use their available vision.  Recommendations may be made for assistive devices that can enable the person to remain in the home and perform daily activities independently. Low Vision OTs can also provide information on the many services and organizations available in the community.  Because occupational therapy is a skilled rehabilitation service, these services are typically covered through Medicare and other third party payers.

Most seniors have a strong desire to remain independent in their own homes, even with declining vision. With the appropriate modifications, this is a viable option for many. Increasing lighting, contrast, and improving organizational strategies are a few simple things that may enable someone to remain independent at home. Training in orientation and mobility can allow individuals to remain active in the community as well.

When standard glasses are no longer an option, optical devices can provide the needed magnification so that an individual can continue reading. High powered magnifiers and electronic readers now are able to magnify print up to 20x the original size. Additional devices such as talking glucometers, color identifiers, and large button cell phones are also available to those with low vision.  If vision loss has impacted you, remember that you are not alone and there are many options available to improve your quality of life.

 “Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” – Michael Jordan

10 Simple Low Vision Tips:

  1. Use full spectrum or natural daylight bulbs to reduce glare and imitate daylight
  2. Remember to light up stairs, pathways, and walkways
  3. Consider goose neck style lamps which are best for reading
  4. Use a black felt tip pen on white paper when writing
  5. Avoid too much pattern on placemats and tablecloths
  6. Label buttons on appliances with bright stickers/raised dots
  7. Label medication bottles with large bold letters on top
  8. Color code household documents and papers
  9. Ask you bank about large print checks
  10. Consider audio books when reading is no longer an option

Mary Schwartz, OTR/L is a low vision occupational therapist with Baker Rehab Group in Frederick, Maryland and sees clients both in the home and within many local assisted living facilities.

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