Complete loss of vision ranks among my top fears. After all, I love to read, write, do needlework, and gaze at my husband and kids.
Like most Americans (about three out of every four, according to the Vision Council of America), I compensate for my imperfect eyesight with corrective lenses.
I admire people who, despite being unable to see, made the most of their lives. Examples: activist Helen Keller (who lost her hearing and sight at 1 1/2 after an illness), musician Ray Charles (who lost his sight at 7 from glaucoma), singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder (who lost his sight as an infant), and braille inventor Louis Braille (who lost his sight after he poked one eye with his father's awl at 3 and the infection spread to his other eye).
I also look up to regular people who thrive despite vision difficulties. For example, I recently spoke with Julie Stark, 51, a mother of two teenage boys who is losing her eyesight and can no longer drive at night. She continues to design corporate training programs and to serve on the board of the nonprofit Chicago Lighthouse, which houses the nation's oldest low-vision clinic, a clock-manufacturing facility that employs visually impaired workers, a school for kids with disabilities, and a legal clinic to help blind people facing discrimination.
Her 18-year-old and 15-year-old help out. "They don't have the benefit of everything being taken care of for them," she says. "My kids became very independent very early on. I couldn't read their homework for them."
Her husband, sons, and Stark herself have adapted, with friends pitching in, too. "You have to ask for help," she says. "Seek it out, figure it out, and be willing to say why. It's a lot harder than people realize to reach out and say, 'I can't do this.'"
Like many disabilities, problems with eyesight are not immediately obvious. "With low vision, nobody can see that you can't see," says Stark. "If you don't tell people, they don't know."
Stark's suffers from an inherited type of macular degeneration called Stargardt disease that causes gradual vision loss. For most people, other eye problems are much more likely, particularly with age. (Reading glasses, anyone?) Fortunately, midlifers today can use high-tech products such as talking clocks and closed-circuit televisions that magnify text.
They can also take immediate action to take good care of their eyes. "It's never too late," says Janet Szlyk, president and executive director of The Chicago Lighthouse and professor of ophthalmology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "[Think], 'What can I do to optimize my vision or preserve my vision?'"
A few tips:
Eat your veggies. Antioxidant-rich spinach and kale may help prevent the decay of the retina, says Szlyk. And beta carotene-rich carrots and cantaloupe may also prevent free radical damage to the eye.
Always wear sunglasses. And make sure your kids and grandkids wear them, too. They protect the film of the eye from being burned by the sun. "Wear your sunglasses, starting from birth," says Szlyk. "it's never too late to start because it's cumulative."
Exercise. Physical activity improves blood circulation, which is good for the eyes and every other part of the body.
Read all about it. The American Academy of Opthalmology breaks down eye health by age. (Adults 40 to 60 are at higher risk for some problems, such as dry eyes.) And the American Academy of Optometry gives an easy-to-understand breakdown of diseases. Age-related macular degeneration harms the sharp vision of people 60 and older. Cataracts cause clouding of the lens in the eye. And glaucoma happens when fluid pressure inside the eyes rises and damages the optic nerve.
Use adaptive technology. If you need it, use software programs such as the ZoomText Magnifier, which makes everything appear bigger on the computer screen. (Stark is a fan.) And low-tech aids such as drugstore readers are "no problem," says Szlyk.
Don't by shy. You can call nonprofit groups such as The Chicago Lighthouse, the Hadley School for the Blind, and the Foundation Fighting Blindness, which help people with vision loss live independently.
Meanwhile, for inspiration, think about how Claude Monet coped with his loss of vision. He painted his water lilies while nearly blind from cataracts.
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