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How new technology, support is helping a growing number of older Vermonters with vision problems

 Woman in flowered top helps older woman who's using a magnifying glass to see, download an app.
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
Julia Soleau, a vision rehabilitation therapist with the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired helps Rutland resident Janet Keck download an app on her smart phone to access free audio books. Keck has macular degeneration, which has blurred her vision and made it hard to focus. Reading, a life long passion, is now nearly impossible.

Between 20,000 and 30,000 older Vermonters are expected to have serious vision problems by 2030.

My mom, Janet Keck, is already in that group. She has macular degeneration. It's a disease that blurs her central vision and makes it hard to focus. Her worsening eyesight forced her to give up driving and move across the country to be closer to me.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, her vision problems have made it hard to meet new people here.

"Mainly because you don't recognize people or you don't recognize things," she explained. "And it's kind of embarrassing when you look at somebody and you know, until they're two feet away, you can't make out their facial features, and nine out of 10 times I'm calling somebody by the wrong name.”

But the biggest loss for my mom? No longer being able to read. She used to go through a novel a week and loved her daily newspaper and crossword puzzles. Now, she has to wait for me to read her mail and emails. She finally sought help earlier this year from the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

An older woman peers closely at her computer screen while learning how to access the National Library Service for the Blind. A woman in a flowered shirt sits next to her offering help.
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
Janet Keck learns how to access the National Library Service for the Blind with help from Julia Soleau. Soleau is a certified vision rehabilitation therapist at the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired and travels around the state to help clients.

Julia Soleau is a vision rehabilitation therapist with the nonprofit. She helps people like my mom adapt to their vision loss and trouble shoot problems they may have in their homes.

Soleau has come to my mom's apartment several times, most recently to help my mother learn how to download free audiobooks and enable some of the accessibility programs on her laptop and cellphone.

These are features that most computers and mobile devices have that can adjust text and font size and include a zoom magnifier and speak screens, which can read on-screen content to you out loud in a variety of voices.

"Once you use it [new technology] a couple of times and get used to it, then it gets easy. Learning to use it and having a visual impairment is hard and frustrating." - Janet Keck, Rutland

While my mother used computers at work every day before she retired, having to navigate so much new technology has not been easy. “It’s a pain in the neck," the 88-year old admits. "Once you get it, or once you use it a couple of times and get used to it, then it gets easy. Learning to use it and having a visual impairment is hard and frustrating."

She holds her cellphone in one hand and a large magnifying glass in the other trying to get familiar with a new app.

"It was so nice in the good old days, just dialing a phone with a rotary dial!" she laughs.

 An older woman sits next to a younger woman with a cell phone getting technology tips.
Janet Keck has trouble seeing becasuse of macular degeneration. She says trying to learn how to use new technology on her lap top and smart phone has been difficult and frustrating. But with help from the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, she's been able to access free audio books which she says has been a joy.

Many older adults with vision problems have the double whammy of also being hard of hearing. That can make socializing even more difficult.

But staying connected is important.

Research shows social isolation and loneliness put older adults at risk for: high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.

Dan Norris, director of adult services with the Vermont Association for the Blind, says depression among older adults with vision problems is huge. "When you have a sensory disability, you are disconnected from society in a specific way that other people are not. So for someone who's developing vision loss later in life, there is an adjustment to vision loss that we help our clients to, to understand, very similar to the five stages of grief.”

Norris says the good news is many people can learn to read again with optical and electronic magnifiers and other devices. He says their nonprofit can also help people access free audio books through the National Library Service.

That’s what my mom was learning how to do. Now, with a comfortable pair of headphones, my mom can listen to bestselling novels and recent news articles, something that’s been a godsend.

The Vermont nonprofit helps older Vermonters learn how to use non-visual techniques to safely cut fruits and vegetables, and manage their medications and blood sugar levels.

"If anybody has an iPhone in their pocket, they have an assistive technology device. But knowing how to use it is a whole nother step. That's where we come in." - Dan Norris, Director of Adult Services for the Vermont Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired

Norris says they also train people how to use technology like voice-controlled speakersand their smartphones. “If anybody has an iPhone in their pocket, they have an assistive technology device," he explains. "But, knowing how to use it is a whole other step. And that's where we come in to help teach those things.”

A company called BlindShell has developed a smartphone that may be even easier to use. It has raised buttons and bars and a larger text display.

Diane Ducharme, program manager for Blind Shell USA, has been visually impaired since childhood. She says their phone comes with a built-in magnifier and apps like Aira and Be My Eyes, which help users connect to a sighted person 24-7.

More from NPR: What will AI mean for the popular app Be My Eyes?

“I would hold my phone like this," says Ducharme, explaining how she's used both apps. "And I would say can you tell me what that sign says or I'm out walking somewhere and I'm trying to find a building or a street and they're looking through my phone and they say, okay, in 100 feet, you're going to turn left and then the building is going to be on your right.”

Be My Eyes is a free app that connects people who are blind with more than six million volunteers around the world.

Aira works somewhat similarly but employs trained agents who take calls. According to Aira’s website 30 minutes a month for their service costs $125.

Both services can help with everything from sorting a sock drawer and checking ingredients for a recipe to finding a tie that can match a suit.

Both companies have also incorporated artificial intelligence technology to provide faster and even more comprehensive service.

All of which may be comforting since the number of older adults who’ll need vision help continues to grow.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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