How to Spot Signs of Vision Loss in Your Aging Parents

Colour photo of young woman hugging her elderly motherAs your parents get older, you may notice your father holding his newspaper closer than he used to, or your mother taking longer to adjust to changes in lighting. Although our parents will inevitably need stronger eyeglass prescriptions as they grow older, it is important to recognize that vision loss from eye disease is not a “natural” part of aging. Although age is a risk factor for many conditions, eye disease can – and should – be prevented and treated at any age.

Vision loss is highest among older people and is increasing each year – the number of seniors with vision loss is expected to double in the next 25 years. But the truth is that in most of these cases, vision loss could have been prevented and treated if caught early.

Tell-tale signs

Your parents may not be as forthcoming about problems with their vision because they are more preoccupied with other health problems, such as loss of mobility, agility, hearing, speech and memory. In some cases they may hide their vision loss because they may not want to accept that they may be losing their vision. According to Dawn Pickering, coordinator and lead instructor in the National Low Vision Specialist Training Program at CNIB, it is important to recognize the tell-tale signs of vision loss so that you can take preventive steps to help your parents.

Some of the signs Pickering advises to watch for in aging relatives:

  • An increased sensitivity to light and glare (such as difficulty reading glossy magazines or an increased need to use sunglasses).
  • Difficulty distinguishing colours (mismatched clothes, socks, etc.).
  • More clumsiness than usual (bumping into objects and people, missing steps and falling more often, having difficulty finding food on a plate or threading a needle).
  • Difficulty distinguishing objects from each other.
  • Having reduced night vision.
  • Straight lines that appear wavy, such as the sides of a building.
  • Trouble reading small print, such as on a medication bottle or in the phone book.
  • Difficulty recognizing faces or seeing the TV as well as they used to.

In addition to physical signs, Pickering also suggests looking out for intuitive or “hidden” signs of vision loss. For example, if your parent is usually outgoing and sociable and all of a sudden becomes introverted and shy, he or she may be experiencing vision loss. Often, seniors in this situation will withdraw from social circles for fear of embarrassment. They may also stop doing things they enjoy that require fine vision skills, such as sewing, reading and playing board games.

So what medical conditions cause age-related vision loss?

There are several eye conditions that can affect your parent’s vision. The most common that affect older people are:

  • AMD (age-related macular degeneration)
  • Glaucoma
  • Diabetic retinopathy
  • Cataracts

Some of these conditions have symptoms you can look out for, while others – like glaucoma – show no symptoms until significant vision changes occur. It is important to encourage your parents to visit an eye doctor regularly – for some seniors, age-related vision loss can be corrected with glasses, medication or surgery if caught early enough. For more information about age-related eye conditions and a full list of symptoms and risk factors, be sure to check out CNIB’s vision health guide for people over 50 and their family members.

Something might be wrong, but I’m not sure…

If you suspect your parent may be losing his or her vision, book an appointment with an eye doctor immediately. An eye doctor can determine whether the signs you are noticing are a result of aging (perhaps your parent simply needs a stronger eyeglass prescription) or if they are connected to a serious eye condition. If your parent does have an eye condition, the eye doctor will also provide you with any available treatment options that may reduce future vision loss. Vision changes may also be the first sign of a more serious health problem – another important reason to visit your eye doctor regularly.

“It is a good idea to come prepared with questions to ask your eye doctor during the appointment,” says Pickering. Quite often, your time with an eye doctor is limited. Pickering suggests sitting down with your parent beforehand and jotting down any questions you have, then grouping and prioritizing them. You might include concerns they have or changes they’ve noticed in their vision, in addition to any signs you’ve noticed. (See Helping Your Parent Make the Most of an Eye Appointment for more information.)

My mother has…

If your parent is diagnosed with an eye disease, be sure to ask your doctor about the eye condition, how your parent’s vision will be affected, what treatments are available, what steps your parent can take to limit further vision loss and where you can go for more information.

Contacting vision support services – like those available at CNIB – in the early stages of vision loss can help you and your parent to adjust more easily. You can also contact CNIB at any time for information on vision health and prevention.