Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Home for the visually impaired

For Martha Templeton, a tour through a model home designed to make life easier for those losing their vision gave her a "wish list" of ideas on how to cope with her own failing vision.

"I want a talking thermometer for sure," said the 84-year-old Dallas woman who has been losing her vision to macular degeneration for three years. "There's just so many things over there. I would take them all if I could."

While there are magazines showing gadgets that can help people like herself, she said seeing and touching the items in the model gave her a better idea of what would work for her.

The model home - which includes a living room, dining area, kitchen, bedroom, closet and bathroom - offers ideas on how to make daily life more manageable for those who are blind or losing their vision.

Lights are placed inside kitchen cabinets to make the contents more visible, a knife is affixed to a cutting board for safety and another device tells you when a cup is filled to capacity.

"It's about giving people new ways to do very familiar tasks," said Kelly Parisi, vice president of communications for the American Foundation for the Blind, which operates the model. The Dallas home is the first of its kind sponsored by the New York-based nonprofit foundation.

Offerings range from the simple - placing a light directly over a notepad - to the high-tech - a device that tells you what color clothing you are wearing. The foundation doesn't sell the various gadgets, but lets visitors know where to purchase them.

One idea Templeton plans to implement is marking her back steps with tape in anticipation of her eyesight degenerating further.

"All these little helps are so wonderful," said Templeton, who can't see to read and has given up driving.

Since the model opened in March, visitors have included retirement center administrators and architects hoping to make facilities friendlier to those with impaired vision, foundation officials said.

"The goal is to help people function as independently as possible," said Judy Scott, director of the foundation's Center on Vision Loss in Dallas.

The model home, which has already had hundreds of visitors since opening for tours, will hold it's grand opening Oct. 27.

Scott said those who go through the model home are often heartened that many of the changes they can make are simple, like changing the color of placemats on a dining table to contrast with the plate.

"People will say things like 'I can go home and make this change tonight,'" Scott said.

Reasons for vision loss as people age include macular degeneration, which affects central vision; glaucoma, which affects peripheral vision; diabetic retinopathy, which distorts vision; and cataracts, which makes vision cloudy.

There are currently about 10 million blind or visually impaired people in the U.S., and foundation officials say those numbers are expected to soar as the population ages.

"The chief cause of eye problems is simply in one word: age," said Dr. H. Dwight Cavanagh, professor of ophthalmology at UT Southwestern who is also on the board of the American Foundation for the Blind.

Dr. Lylas Mogk, director of the visual rehabilitation and research center of the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, said the visually impaired population has shifted over the past several decades. In the 1950s, injured soldiers and children suffering from disease made up the bulk of cases, she said. Today, it is the elderly.

"All of the organizations are working on incorporating this group of people into their whole dynamic," Mogk said.

Mogk, chair of the American Academy of Ophthalmology's vision rehabilitation committee, is part of the academy's task force to get more information to ophthalmologists about helping patients deal with vision loss.

While touring the model home, Nancy Shugart discovered a simple item that made her 90-year-old mother, whose vision has been damaged by glaucoma, more independent: a dome magnifier that allowed her to read mail.

"The first thing out of her mouth was 'I can't believe how easy it is to see,'" said Shugart, 49, of Austin, who toured the center as a member of the Texas Gov.'s Committee on People with Disabilities.

Even Shugart, who has been visually impaired since she was 8, said she learned a few things on her trip through the model.

"It was fun to see all the gadgets," Shugart said.


American Foundation for the Blind:


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