The most common vision-related diseases affecting seniors are glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy.
Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness, in which fluid pressure builds and damages the optic nerve.
Symptoms: Glaucoma can progress undetected. The first signs are usually a decrease in side vision. Early treatment is critical because it can slow the progression of the disease, but any loss that has already occurred at the time of diagnosis is permanent.
Cataracts occur when protein molecules clump together and cloud over the eye lens.
Symptoms: Bothersome glare, cloudy vision, and double vision are all signs of cataracts.
Macular degeneration occurs when the center of the retina, the macula, degenerates causing problems with central vision.
Symptoms: Decrease in central vision, which affects most daily functions such as reading and driving.
Diabetic retinopathy is brought on by diabetes, which causes new growth and leakage of the retina's blood vessels, potentially leading to blindness.
Symptoms: Pain in the eyes, "floaters" across the vision field, and blurry vision are all signs to watch for, especially if you know your loved one has diabetes.
Don't Look the Other Way
It's important to act quickly if your aging parents or loved ones are complaining about their eyesight, or if they're showing signs of diminished vision. Make an appointment with an ophthalmologist who will perform a comprehensive eye exam to determine the problem. This includes reading the eye chart, dilating the pupils, and tonometry, which measures eye pressure. Depending on what the tests reveal, the ophthalmologist will talk to you and your loved one about the following treatment options: eye drops, pills, a change in eyeglass prescription, traditional surgery, laser treatments and/or surgery. If the diminished vision is expected to persist, even with the best available medical or surgical treatment, be sure to ask about a referral to a low vision specialist so as to maximize the vision that remains.
What You Can Do to Help Your Parent Adapt
Vision loss seriously impacts the quality of life. Your loved one will most likely experience a range of emotions, including grief and anger. It helps to let people talk out their feelings and to offer support and encouragement as they make their way toward acceptance. It also helps for them to know they can make an appointment with a low vision specialist to investigate what immediate steps can be taken to enhance the use of the vision that remains.
There are also many practical ways you can help make life easier for your loved one who's experiencing vision loss:
- Make sure there is adequate, non-glare lighting in every room.
- Avoid big contrasts in lighting, such as a bright single reading lamp in a dark room.
- Schedule an appointment with a low vision specialist to determine if magnification is indicated, and if so, what power and what form of magnification.
- Implement tactile clues, such as rubber bands around certain items to distinguish them from others, or sandpaper or felt dots to mark items.
- Buy large print books, calendars, phones, playing cards, etc.
- A guide dog can be a life-enhancing addition to a person with severe vision loss, but is not necessary for every person with vision loss, even those who might become legally blind. Discuss this sensitive topic with a low vision specialist or make an informational call to Guide Dogs for the Blind or one of the several other excellent guide dog schools in the US.
- Call on a low vision specialist, who can help with adaptation techniques and rehabilitation.