Most Common Vision Problems in the Elderly
After nearly 40 years at the iron works, my father retired. He and Mom looked forward to relaxing, spending time with family and traveling. Within weeks of retirement, Dad was diagnosed with macular degeneration and was told he could no longer drive. Dad had postponed seeing a doctor about his worsening eyesight until he had more time. It turns out that waiting until retirement to investigate his deteriorating vision was a bad choice. His vision loss was significant and irreversible. The diagnosis was a blow to my father and to our entire family.
Vision loss among elderly Americans is a significant health concern. Over 5.4 million report partial or complete blindness: having difficulty seeing, even with corrective lenses, or being unable to see at all. About half of all blind people are 65 or older. As the elderly population in the US is rapidly increasing, this issue will be of growing concern.
What causes vision loss?
The 4 most common vision problems that elderly people experience are:
- Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD): is the leading cause of vision loss in people over 65. The retina deteriorates with age and leads to loss of central vision, while peripheral vision remains intact. People also see shadows or seeing wavy lines, often first noticed when looking at mini-blinds in the home.
- Glaucoma: is the most common cause of blindness among African Americans, responsible for 10% of cases of blindness in the US. Increase in fluid pressure inside the eye can be painful and damages the optic nerve. Symptoms include blurred vision, halos around lights, and tunnel vision.
- Cataracts: are the most common causes of blindness worldwide, but less so in the U.S. because cataract surgery is readily available, safe and effective. With cataracts, the eye lens becomes cloudy and blocks passage of light into the eye. Not painful, cataracts lead to blurred, dimmed or double vision, as well as sensitivity to bright light.
- Diabetic Retinopathy: the leading cause of new blindness among middle-aged Americans is also a significant concern in elderly diabetics. Changes in the blood vessels of the retina lead to blurred vision, floaters, visual field loss, and poor night vision.
What is the impact of vision loss?
When eyesight is lost, lifestyle and lifelong habits are changed. Common activities like reading, using a computer or cell-phone, watching television, or enjoying hobbies must be adapted or let-go. Easy tasks, like telling time on a watch; fastening a bracelet clasp; using a screwdriver or turning on a microwave, become unmanageable. A driver’s license may not be able to be renewed. A job might become impossible.
Vision loss can be difficult for the one losing sight, as well as for their family or friends. As lives are forever changed, the sense of loss is seen in feelings like denial, disbelief, frustration, anger, sadness or depression. Everyone must find ways to adapt to the “new normal.”
What can I do if my loved one has vision problems?
Adapting to vision loss can be difficult, but here are some ideas that will help you cope.
Learn all you can about the condition. Information is power. Having all the facts will help you make important decisions. Ask questions of your health care provider. Also, there is a wealth of information available online.
Check out these links to learn about various eye conditions.
- For macular degeneration: http://www.nei.nih.gov/health/maculardegen/index.asp
- For glaucoma: www.nei.nih.gov/glaucoma
- For cataracts: http://www.nei.nih.gov/health/cataract/
- For diabetic retinopathy: http://www.nei.nih.gov/health/diabetic/
Reach out for support. There are millions of others grappling with the same feelings and challenges you face. Knowing you are not alone strengthens you. Support from others builds resilience and helps you endure when things are tough. Your physician or health care provider may know of local support groups. Here are some online resources that offer support:
- For macular degeneration:http://www.mdsupport.org/
- For cataracts: http://www.mdjunction.com/cataracts
- For diabetic retinopathy: http://www.second-sense.org/programs_counseling_DRSupport.asp
Take good care of yourself. Simple self-care practices ease your stress. Like support from others, they build resilience and help you persevere in the face of adversity. So do anything that helps you relax, feel joy, or peace. Whatever recharges your energy will help you stay healthy as you cope with the challenges of vision loss. Visit these online resources for ideas on care for caregivers.
- Partners on the Path: http://www.partnersonthepath.org/blog/
- Family Caregiver Alliance: A Guide to Taking Care of Yourself http://www.caregiver.org/caregiver/jsp/content_node.jsp?nodeid=784
- AARP: Family Caregiver Resolutions for 2014 http://states.aarp.org/family-caregiver-resolutions-for-2014/
Jane Meier Hamilton MSN, RN, is founder of Partners on the Path LLC, providing caregiver support programs to businesses that employ, and nonprofits that support professional and family caregivers. Find her book, The Caregiver’s Guide to Self-Care (Infinity 2011) in print, one-hour audio, and e-book formats at your favorite online provider
For more information, please review our Low Vision & Eye Problem Resources.