When eyes are low on seeing a helping hand can make a difference. At left, Polly Abbott helps out at a cooking class for seniors with low vision. Photo courtesy of Guild for the Blind

Today, 6.5 million Americans over age 65 have severe visual impairment, according to the Longitudinal Prevalence of Major Eye Diseases 2003 study.

Experts predict the rate of conditions such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and cataracts will continue to rise with the aging population.

The North Shore Senior Center and the Guild for the Blind, building on a successful collaboration, are expanding outreach, education and social services to seniors with visual impairment. 

Thanks to a grant from the Evanston Community Foundation, new offerings will include hands-on workshops designed to help seniors adjust to vision loss to supplement an existing support group.

The New Visions series, consisting of three 90-minute workshops that began on Sept. 1, offers help to adults with vision loss by introducing useful products, tips for home organization and ideas for enhancing vision. 

All three hands-on demonstrations are held at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave., and are presented by a certified vision rehabilitation therapist from Guild for the Blind.

The Next Steps workshops will be presented in the spring of 2012. Four two-hour classes teach simple techniques to safely and efficiently perform daily tasks.  Topics include Dining with Confidence, At Home in the Kitchen, Letter Perfect and Buttons and Dials. The classes will be taught at various Evanston locations yet to be determined.

All workshops are free to the public.

A Low Vision Support Group, formed in 1998, currently meets on the third Thursday of each month at 2:30 p.m. at North Shore Retirement Hotel, 1611 Chicago Ave.

 “We began a low vision support group to meet a need,” says Rose Karasti, a licensed clinical social worker from the North Shore Senior Center and a co-facilitator of the Low Vision program. 

“Often an individual gets a diagnosis from a doctor without any information about what to do next,” she adds.

 The support group was founded so people could “get together, share their challenges and their experiences about how they are learning to grapple,” continues Ms. Karasti.

The North Shore Senior Center began bringing in experts from the Guild for the Blind to the support group to help explain what was happening and ways to cope.

“The workshops we are now offering are a natural extension of our partnership,” says Polly Abbott, director of rehabilitation services at Guild for the Blind and the certified vision rehabilitation therapist who facilitates the Low Vision workshops. 

Both Ms. Karasti and Ms. Abbott recognize the challenges presented to seniors when they can no longer rely on vision to compensate for age-related changes.

“Without appropriate interventions, the quality of life can deteriorate,” says Ms. Abbott. “Seniors with vision loss have a high depression rate often worsened by social isolation.”

“Fortunately, there are real things people can do to manage their vision loss and continue to enjoy life by making some simple adjustments,” says Ms. Karasti. 

For example, Ms. Abbott suggests putting black coffee in a white mug as opposed to a black mug, and keeping one finger on the tabletop when dining to help navigate depth perception.  When having soup, sip the liquid before eating the chunks to avoid making a big splash if a piece slips off the spoon.

Phyllis Reinfranck, an Evanston resident who has been coping with macular degeneration for the past 11 years, has participated in previous workshops offered by Guild for the Blind and says they have been very helpful.

“I participated in a wonderful cooking class taught by Ms. Abbott,” says Ms. Reinfranck. “I learned to work on a cafeteria tray. I start with everything on one side of the tray. As I finish using an ingredient or utensil, I simply push it to the other side of the tray. Also, if I’m slicing a carrot, for example, it will not roll onto the ground but will stay put on my tray. It’s brilliant!”

Ms. Reinfranck also appreciates the opportunity to get out of the house and meet with other people coping with similar struggles.

“This is such a valuable program we are able to offer that we want to get the word out,” says Ms. Karasti.  “We want people to know they can feel more confident and secure and they can continue their lives with pleasure.

Help and Support for Those with Low Vision

New Visions: Help for Seniors with Vision Loss, meets next at 2 p.m. on Nov. 3 at the Evanston Library, 1703 Orrington Ave.

Next Steps: Task-Specific Training Workshops

Four workshops, each focusing on a specific task, will meet in spring 2012, place and time to be determined.

Low Vision Support Group

Meets on the third Thursday of the month at 2:30 p.m. at North Shore Retirement Hotel, 1611 Chicago Ave.

Additional information is available by calling Kathy Austin at Guild for the Blind, 312-236-8569, or Rose Karasti at North Shore Senior Center-Evanston, 847-424-5662.