2017-01-04 / Columns

New support group helps those dealing with vision impairment

STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART
MARLA MEYERS
Executive Director, Jewish Family & Children’s Service

Julia (name changed to protect privacy) was 47 when her eyesight started to wane, and now at age 73 she has trouble doing many of the things she used to enjoy, due to her vision loss.

“I sometimes get sad, because it is a challenge for me to write letters to my family members, something my granddaughters and I used to enjoy. It is how I would stay in touch and catch up on all they were doing. My favorite part of the month was going to the mailbox to read the mail I would receive. I struggle to do even that now,” she told us.

With people in the United States living longer, eye diseases and vision loss have become major public health concerns. Currently, 4.2 million Americans age 40 and older are visually impaired. By 2030, less than 15 years from now, when the last Baby Boomers turn 65, this number is projected to reach 7.2 million. Five million will have low vision.

Next month is Low Vision Awareness Month, and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss for individuals age 50 and older. Being visually impaired is going to be part of everyday life for many, and to assist our local community members who struggle with difficulties with their sight, JFCS has developed a comprehensive support group, called “Seeing It Through Together—A Low Vision Educational and Support Group.” The program will help provide resources, guidance, practical solutions for everyday living, doctor presentations on the latest care and treatments, and a supportive environment for those coping with this life change.

The Low Vision Educational and Support Group, facilitated by JFCS Senior Services Counselor Hilary Gould will help to target many of the concerns that affect those with AMD and other eye diseases. “It is my hope that clients will gain useful knowledge by professionals to better equip themselves in everyday life—from understanding their diagnosis to utilizing independent living aids in order to stay at home, as well as learning to cope with this new loss in a safe environment both individually and within the family and community systems,” said Hilary.

According to the National Institutes of Health—Senior Health (nihseniorhealth.gov), people with low vision find everyday tasks difficult to do, even with the aid of regular glasses/contacts, medications, or surgery. Having low vision can make basic activities like reading, shopping, cooking, writing, computer use, and watching TV extremely difficult. Many times, an individual’s eye care physician has advised them that there is not much that can be done to improve their vision. The consequences of vision loss may leave people feeling frustrated, helpless, scared and depressed. JFCS’ support group is structured to bridge the gap between diagnosis and coping with the everyday struggles of vision loss.

The National Eye Institute suggests macular degeneration is a progressive disease that affects the macula, the spot on the retina responsible for central vision, causing central vision to blur, but leaving peripheral vision intact. In its earliest stages, AMD can be difficult to diagnose. In some cases, AMD progresses slowly, and in other cases, the deterioration is very rapid.

A common risk factor is age. AMD signs are present in about 14 percent of people under 64, 20 percent of people between 65 to 75, and up to 37 percent of people over 75. Additionally, AMD is more common in women than men. Some risk factors are within one’s control, such as smoking, which interferes with the absorption of lutein, an antioxidant that protects the retina from UV light. High blood pressure, diet and exercise, and exposure to sunlight without eye protection are also factors. It is recommended that people wear protection that offers 100 percent blockage of UVA and UVB rays, which are mitigating factors in AMD.

Preparing our elderly and others to manage the challenges of vision loss, gain independence, and discover resources are all goals of the new “Seeing It Through Together” support group. We encourage anyone who is, or knows someone, who is living with vision loss to attend the group slated to start soon.

To register, please contact Hilary Gould, MSW, LSW at (856) 424-1333, ext. 1016, or email hgould@jfedsnj.org

mmeyers@jfedsnj.org

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