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5 Ways to Support a Family Member Adjust to Living with Low Vision

5 Ways to Support a Family Member Adjust to Living with Low Vision

Adapting to a new lifestyle can take a lot of time and effort. CU low vision expert Kara Hanson, OD, FAAO, shares tips that can help caretakers and loved ones make the most of a person’s existing vision.

minute read

Written by Kara Mason on February 22, 2024

In the low vision rehabilitation clinic at the Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center, specialists help patients regain some of their daily lives. Oftentimes, that means helping and educating caregivers, too. 

“We try to help people use the vision they do have so they can keep doing the things they want to do,” explains Kara Hanson, OD, FAAO, director of the Low Vision Rehabilitation Service (LVRS) and associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “Overall, our goal is to increase independence and quality of life.” 

The clinic does that by first asking detailed questions to identify a patient’s goals and then trouble-shooting ways to achieve those goals – which may involve new techniques or using  specific devices made for people with low vision.  

“We do a lot of testing to determine the level of vision a person has,” Hanson says. “Our priority is to help maximize how they use their remaining vision, not to monitor ocular health — it’s important that our patients continue to see their primary eye doctors as instructed.”  

This often means the doctors and occupational therapists in the LVRS also counsel caregivers and family members on how to best help adjust to living with low vision. 

“We are often asked by caregivers what they can do to support their loved one. This can be a challenging time for them, too. They want to help but aren’t always sure what the best way is,” Hanson says.  

While it can depend on the patient’s goals and their level of vision, Hanson explains that there are several common suggestions she and the clinic give to the people supporting a person with low vision.

Organization and contrast are key

Limiting clutter can make a big difference to a person with low vision. Tidy spaces will ensure a safe, efficient environment so the person can access daily necessities. For example, it’s important to store items in the pantry and refrigerator so that each has a designated spot. Make sure backpacks, shoes, and other household items aren’t left around and made a tripping hazard.  

This also means making changes that eliminate visual clutter, like a patterned drawer liner or tablecloth. Patterned plates make it harder to tell what is a piece of food and what is decoration.  

Solid and high-contrast backgrounds aid in being able to make out words or shapes, ultimately improving the ability to see. Caregivers can mark the edge of steps with high-contrast tape or paint so they stand out better.  Furniture, like a coffee table, can also be outlined with bright, highly contrasted colors to make themi more visible. Changing outlet and light switch plates to a contrasting color will make them easier to locate as well. 

Enhance appropriate lighting conditions

Many people with low vision have difficulty transitioning between light and dark areas, so it’s crucial to adapt lighting conditions to the person as much as possible. Some vision issues, like macular degeneration, require two-to-three times more light to see better, but other conditions can increase sensitivity to light. 

For those who need more light to see better, task lighting is ideal. Adjustable lighting, like a goose neck lamp allows a person to position the light so it provides maximum benefit to perform a given task. A headlamp or neck light can provide hands-free, portable task lighting. 

When choosing a light source, consider the color temperature and lumens. Cool color temperature lights emit a blueish hue, while warmer color temperature provides a yellowish-orange light, like old incandescent bulbs. A broad-spectrum light is closer to sunlight. Lumens indicate how bright the light is. The higher the number, the brighter the light. 

Utilizing different kinds of light may help achieve better vision in some instances. Fluorescent lighting, for example, casts fairly even light, is cost-effective and easy to implement into a home or office, but can be harsh and sometimes flicker, creating eye strain for some. Natural sunlight can often be bright enough during the day, but also comes with the threat of shadowing.  

For those with light sensitivity, glare control is important. To help reduce glare, install dimmer switches that can help maintain even lighting, avoid polishing floors and hard surfaces while cleaning. Matte finishes are better than glossy. Translucent window coverings or blinds can control natural light. Use sunglasses and/or wear a brimmed hat where glare is unavoidable, both indoors and outside. 

Patience goes a long way

Among the most important aspects of supporting a person with low vision is having patience, especially in situations that otherwise seem normal or low effort. 

“People with low vision are spending much more mental energy on seeing what they’re trying to do,” Hanson says. “That’s one thing that might not be apparent to the people around them, so patience is really crucial.”   

Sometimes, a person in the low vision rehabilitation clinic is used to being the main caregiver in a household – which can understandably be an adjustment for all involved, Hanson continues. Understanding the vision problems their loved one has can create a new level of insight for what is and isn’t difficult for them to accomplish and can guide their support. 

Step back and encourage learning

It can take time to adjust to a new way of living. Most people want to help their family members perform a task when they see them struggling, but taking a step back and allowing them to master a task can be even more helpful. After participating in low vision rehab, families can help implement the strategies they learn at home.  

“We want to empower our low vision patients so that they feel confident to take on some tasks on their own,” Hanson says. “It’s easy to jump in and help but allowing a family member a few extra moments to do it on their own can be really beneficial to their learning and their confidence.” 

Prioritize routine

Like having an organized living space, a routine can be especially beneficial to low vision patients. 

In the home, even small routines can make a difference, like leaving doors either completely open or completely shut. A person with reduced peripheral vision can then know what to expect at a doorway. Avoid moving furniture, as it may inhibit the person’s safety.  

It can also be helpful to maintain routines around eye care, too. People with dry eye problems, for example, can establish a schedule of using artificial tears routinely by instilling them at mealtime, if they eat three times a day. 

 “Low vision rehabilitation is a process. Finding the right mix of routine, adaptations, organization, and other tools may take some time and effort, but in the end, it will enhance the patient’s quality of life and help them achieve their goals,” Hanson says. “A low vision specialist can help guide patients and their families to making the right adjustments.” 

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Kara Hanson, OD, FAAO