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Help Older Adults Identify Aids to Deal With Low Vision

An ever-increasing array of products is available to help people with low vision perform daily activities.

By , Caring.com senior contributing editor
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bifocals and words
Image by Muffet used under the creative commons attribution license.

Vision aids help make older adults' lives easier

While vision aids won't provide a cure, they can make daily life a lot easier for someone with vision problems. By enabling him to continue his daily tasks and hobbies, vision aids help him maintain as much independence as possible.

There's no shortage of aids available for people with vision loss. As you explore the possibilities, you may become excited by the prospect of how a particular aid might help. Still, don't run out and buy any expensive equipment without first arranging for the person to give it a try. What will benefit him most depends on his exact condition and how severe it is, as well as his willingness and ability to use an aid.

Also keep in mind that his vision may change from day to day, or even within the course of a day. His eye doctor can you give helpful feedback about whether she thinks a specific aid will suit him.

Ideally, someone with low vision could have a low-vision evaluation and rehabilitation training in his home to best identify appropriate devices. To find out if such services exist in your area, ask his eye doctor or search on the Lighthouse International Vision Connection site. (It will also put you in touch with other low-vision resources.)

Another good resource is the American Foundation for the Blind.

Where to find products for low vision

*Talk to the person's eye doctor. She may be able to recommend a good source for vision aids.

*Go shopping. Some stores are dedicated to selling vision aids, and many such products can be found online (search for vision aids), but have the person try them out before you buy. (If you're getting a discount for buying online, make sure the product you test at a store is the same one, from the same manufacturer, that you're purchasing online.)

*Check small, local stores. Your local drugstore may have smaller items such as handheld magnifiers and magnifying makeup mirrors. And look for small, bright (LCD) flashlights at your hardware store.

Finessing the finances

Some vision aids are very inexpensive, but others are unaffordable for many patients -- unless you're able to tap other resources.

*Talk to the patient's insurance company. These sometimes cover prescribed aids, so ask his insurance company which expenses will be covered, such as an exam, aids, and training to use the aids.

*Check with Medicare. Its policies vary from state to state. Medicare programs don't cover the cost of the aids, but in some states Medicare pays for exams and training.

*Look for sources that lend equipment free of charge. The Library of Congress, for example, lends tape players -- along with books and magazines on tape -- to patrons with low vision. You can sign up for this service through the National Library Service.

What vision aids are available?

What follows is by no means an exhaustive look at what aids are available, but it will give you an idea of the kinds of items that might benefit an older adult you're caring for.

*Glasses. Depending on his condition, he may benefit from a strong bifocal eyeglass prescription.The eye doctor can talk with him about special glasses to help maximize his sight and make him more comfortable. For example, he can have lenses made that magnify up to 20 times. Special absorptive lenses can regulate the amount of light -- reducing glare or increasing contrast. And, of course, lenses can also be made to eliminate harmful UV and AB rays, a very important factor for eye protection. Glasses can also be outfitted with magnifiers (see below).

*Large-print items. You'll be surprised at the number of products that are available in large print. Telephone books and menus are often available in large print, for example, as are checks with tactile lines (ask at your bank). You can find telephones, clocks, kitchen timers, and remote controls with large numbers, as well as measuring cups with big markings.

*Check out the large-print section of your local library. And if there's a particular book you'd like in large print but can't find locally, ask your librarian if she can use the interlibrary loan program to get it for you. There are even large-print book-of-the-month clubs.

*Closed-circuit television. Also called CCTV, this is basically a video camera mounted on a stand. It magnifies and takes a picture of an object and projects it on a video screen. It can be used for looking at everything from photos and recipes to newspaper articles and bills. A patient with vision problems may be able to use it for reading, writing, and craftwork. CCTV technology has made many advances in recent years. Some CCTVs come with special features such as underlining, and some can be used with a personal computer.

  • Magnifiers. These range from small pocket devices to magnified mirrors and eyepieces to large tabletop models.

    *Pocket magnifiers are handy for reading menus and price tags while out and about. They come in various shapes and sizes and can magnify 1.5 to 2 times. Some are illuminated. If the patient's hands are shaky or tire easily, though, he may find one of these hard to use.

    *Stand magnifiers might be of great help at home. These sit above what is being viewed and can magnify 2 to 20 times. Some are illuminated (by battery or electricity), which is often desirable because people with low vision usually need good, direct light.

    *Monoculars are among the wide range of magnifying devices available to supplement prescription glasses and help with reading, watching television, or driving. Acting as small telescopes, monoculars (used with one eye, as opposed to binoculars, which are used with both eyes) can magnify 2.5 to 10 times, for example. They can be held in the hand, put on a neck cord, or mounted on eyeglasses.

    *A bioptic system is a magnifying device (monocular or binocular) specifically mounted on eyewear. In recent years, these systems have become less cumbersome and more effective. There's even a telescope mounted on glasses that can automatically adjust the focus, much like an autofocus camera, for near or distant vision.

Talking tools for help with vision

Devices that will speak to the patient

Auditory aids may be useful as the person in your care learns to use his other senses to adapt to his low vision.

*Talking devices. Many of these are available, including watches, scales, meat thermometers, and liquid level guides (for pouring liquids).

*Recorded books, newspapers, and magazines. Someone with low vision can access myriad published works via cassettes, CDs, or computer downloads onto an iPod. He can also listen to newspapers on the phone via the National Federation for the Blind. Its toll-free number is (866) 504-7300.

*Reading machines. These are scanners with voice output, and they can take typewritten material and read it aloud. Some can be hooked up to a personal computer, and certain software can turn a personal computer into a reading machine.

*Narrated TV programs. If the person in your care enjoys television, you might look into narration of programs for those with low or no vision. To find out more, visit the Narrative Television Network.

  • Talking bar code scanner. This device is ideal for shopping. The user swipes the scanner around the product (no need to find the code), and the device will read aloud the nutritional information, instructions, package size, warnings, and so on.

*Talking labels. If he takes medication, he can purchase software that will enable his pharmacist to place a label on his medication that he can later listen to by using a handheld reader.

Devices he can talk to

*Voice-recognition software. One of the most exciting developments for those with low vision has been voice-recognition software, which allows them to dictate letters onto a computer.

*Voice-activated dialing. A cell phone with this feature is available, and it means you won't need to use the tiny cell phone buttons to manually dial for help -- or to chat on the phone. (Phones with large, illuminated buttons are also available.)

Ask for what you need

There are many, many more aids that might be useful -- from writing templates to help him write out checks to eye-saver light bulbs that focus the maximum light on the reading or task at hand. If the person in your care is having trouble performing a particular task, ask yourself -- and the low-vision store -- what kind of aid might be useful. There's a good chance something appropriate is available; maybe you just haven't figured out what it's called yet.