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Program gives seniors with vision loss a brighter outlook

DELTONA, Fla. — Over the years, Diana Dawson gradually lost the ability to see the details in the wedding dresses she had been sewing her whole life.

At the bridal shop where she worked, she couldn't focus on the beading, and as her vision continued to fade, she couldn't see the fabric well enough to cut it.

The Florida woman has been diagnosed with macular degeneration, an eye disease that's the leading cause of blindness for those folks age 65 and older. It afflicts more than 10 million Americans, according to the American Medical Association.

But Dawson, 66, hopes that with help from the Center for the Visually Impaired, she will not only be able to function in daily life but may one day sew again.

"My goal is to one day be able to sew my granddaughter's wedding dress," she said. "I promised her I would do that."

It's not a far-fetched idea, said Benjamin Fischer, an instructor for the Daytona Beach, Fla.-based center. Fischer is training Dawson and others to cope with vision loss through its "independent senior living" program.

"There are tools and techniques available that can help someone accomplish the same tasks in a different way by using the vision they have," said Fischer. "We work with them to find out what are the activities they want to do and help them find a way to do it."

The program offers a 13-week course that teaches seniors how to cope with their deteriorating vision, helping them find ways to read and accomplish other everyday tasks.

Ronee Hudson, executive director of the center, said "the demand for services is tremendous." The center, which also offers training for visually impaired teenagers and job seekers, helps 300 to 400 people a year.

Small classes offer a chance for one-on-one help with individual vision problems. Dawson and others with macular degeneration, for example, lose the central part of their vision as their retina deteriorates, causing blurriness and a loss of detail. Fischer explained that they can adapt by using the peripheral vision that remains instead of looking at objects straight on.

Fischer said there are several visual aids available to help thread a needle and perform other minor sewing tasks, pointing out that there are others at the center who are legally blind but have figured out ways to sew a button or hem a pair of pants.

Susan Halsey, a DeLand, Fla., woman who's also taking the course, has vision loss from diabetes, but she has found it easier to read small print with a set of yellow-lens glasses. The yellow filter helps to emphasize the contrasts between light and dark.

Because these seniors have had vision most of their lives, Fischer also emphasized the use of "visual memory." Halsey figured that out during a supermarket trip. Although she couldn't read the lettering on the label, she recognized a 7UP bottle by its familiar shape and color pattern.

"It's a matter of recognizing objects vs. seeing objects," Fischer said.

The course also will help them learn how to manage in the kitchen and make their home safer — all the while helping them accept their aging eyes.

None of the center's current clients are content to let their vision problems slow them down, however. Halsey wants to use the center's training to help her find a job again. Dawson plans to order tools to help her sew again, and another client, Deltona resident George Swain, plans to finish the bachelor's degree in microbiology he started at the University of Central Florida.

"You can't change your situation," Halsey said, "but you want to continue going and growing."

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.