Confronting the Challenge of Macular Degeneration

by June Nessler
Fortuna, California

I thought that all I needed was a prescription for stronger lenses. I had accepted the normal diminishing sight that comes with age. After all, what could I expect at age 72?

I went at the appointed time to my ophthalmologist who, after my eye examination, said, "I have some bad news."

"Let's have it," I said, impatiently.

"You have macular degeneration," he said.

"What's that?" I asked not really alarmed except for the degeneration part.

My doctor explained that, in this age-related disease, there is deterioration of the retina. I could expect to have, as yet, incurable vision problems that might limit my daily activities. I could, however, slow its inexorable progress by taking vitamins, eating wholesome foods, exercising regularly and generally living a healthful lifestyle.

What? I would eventually become incapacitated? I would not be able to see well enough to write, to read, or to drive? Were my plans like finishing my family research, making genealogy books for each of my four children, writing stories, and, perhaps, writing a novel to go unrealized? What would happen to me?

I went through a kind of grief process: Anger. Why me? Then the anger turned into depression. I found myself waking up in the middle of the night and crying at my expected loss. I thought of how difficult it was going to make life for my husband. Much as he tried to reassure me, I felt angry and helpless. After all, it was I who had this affliction, and it was I alone who would have to endure it; and there was no remedy. I wallowed in my misery for at least a month.

I am a retired junior high school teacher. Many times I had admonished my students: Don't let life happen to you. You happen to life. And yet, there I was allowing things to happen to me instead of taking charge and having a modicum of control over my circumstances. Well, it was time to take stock and act.

For one thing, my typing needed improvement. It was fine as long as my vision was good, but I always made many typos. That would never do if I wanted to continue to write as my vision deteriorated. I decided to take a keyboarding course at the college. Wonderful teachers encouraged me. Students and teachers didn't seem to mind that I was old enough to be their grandmother or even their great-grandmother. They didn't equate growing older with becoming stupid as so many people do. My keyboarding improved. I still make mistakes now and then, but not nearly the number I used to make.

I would feel uncomfortable without the little makeup I wear. This may seem frivolous to some, but I am becoming proficient at putting on cosmetics as well as combing my hair with my eyes closed.

I joined a low vision support group where I meet people who are getting on quite well with severe vision loss that is much worse than mine. I was ashamed remembering the way I had behaved when I was told of my own eventual loss. What a self-centered, geriatric brat I must have seemed!

The monthly meetings are informative. Members report on the latest aids and technologies to help cope with vision impairment. I learned, at a recent meeting, that the gene causing macular degeneration has been identified. It's a miraculous world and one should never give up hope.

Through the group, I was introduced to Lighthouse for the Blind, another resource when I need help. The area coordinator has come to my home and helped me handle the magnifying and talking software for my computer. She also gave me helpful hints about ways of performing household chores regardless of vision loss. I have purchased two handheld magnifiers, one for my handbag and one for the house, that are much better than the kind found at the drugstore. I need them to read labels, recipes, menus, price tags etc.

I have joined two writing groups where I receive feedback on what I write. Since one of the groups meets at night, when I cannot drive, members assured me that there was always someone to get me to and from the meeting. It is very gratifying to find that people want to be helpful even though it is inconvenient for them to do so.

It has been eight years since my diagnosis. Of course, my vision has deteriorated, but the loss is occurring more slowly than I was led to anticipate when I was first diagnosed. Perhaps that is due to the large number of antioxidants and food supplements I take regularly as prescribed in a book I read about macular degeneration. As a bonus, I have had no infectious diseases since I began taking these supplements. The book is OVERCOMING MACULAR DEGENERATION: A GUIDE TO SEEING BEYOND THE CLOUDS by Yale Solomon with Jonathan D. Solomon (DB 51826 and RC 51826).

I am not considered legally blind, yet. I am 80 now, still walk a mile and a half each day, rain or shine; and I do my floor exercises, hopefully, to prevent my having to use a walker. I am gradually confronting the impact of the vision loss which could have precluded my participating in my favorite activities. I eagerly await the new technologies that make life easier for visually impaired people according to this magazine. I am determined to be an active rather than a passive participant in my future.

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