Announcer: Imagine the frustration you would feel if every time you focused your eye on something, the object disappeared behind a blind spot. This type of central vision loss is often caused by macular degeneration. It most commonly happens to those over the age of 75, and even though it doesn't usually lead to total blindness, macular degeneration can rob people of their independence. It can make even simple tasks like paying bills, or dialing a phone, difficult if not impossible. The bright spot in all of this is that new methods of rehabilitation can help people make the most of their remaining vision. For eight years, Douglas Roach knew he had slow degeneration of his retina but he suffered no symptoms. At 93, this Minneapolis resident took pride in the fact that he lived on his own in a senior high-rise. But last November, he experienced sudden vision loss during a trip to the Mediterranean with his daughter.
Douglas: So midway through the trip I've begun to complain to her that I had the sensation of looking through a veil.
Daughter: We took that trip to Spain, and I did notice the lighting issues were huge. He did need somebody at his arm to make sure -- oh, there's a step there, there's a step there. The things that he's adapted, I think, when he came back from that trip, his eyes were worse, he felt.
Announcer: Sudden changes can happen as a result of acute stress or illness. Douglas had recently been widowed.
Daughter: I think they had been coming on but they were a little bit more pronounced, I think, after my mom died, and the -- need for light to really have good light to see -- you know, anything, became an issue.
Douglas: One thing I have lost is a little -- well, maybe more than a little, self-confidence. I just am not as self-assured. I have to make sure where that foot goes now if I'm in a strange location, and I have to make sure of my surroundings.
Announcer: The need for brighter light to see objects up close was another indication the disease was progressing. Even though their central vision is gone, people with macular degeneration usually retain some peripheral vision. Kate Grathwol specializes in vision rehabilitation at the Phillips Eye Institute in Minneapolis.
Kate: Since birth, you've been in the habit of pointing your macula at whatever you wanted to see, and it worked. You saw it clearly. Now, if you point your macula right at something, you're literally putting a blind spot on what you want to see, so what we do is we teach them how to use the area right next to the macula.
Announcer: To prevent further vision loss, Douglas checks his sight every day. If the lines on this Amsler grid appear wavy, it indicates that blood vessels are leaking behind the eye. He's had laser surgery once already to stop the leakage, but he knows that if there's a major hemorrhage, he could go blind overnight. Douglas has to learn to make better use of the sight he has left. He can't decipher his own handwriting any more, so to keep in touch with his family and friends, he types all his correspondence in bold caps.
Douglas: I have a little trouble seeing my food and being able to handle the fork and to read the menu. I go prepared by taking this little flashlight, which is quite brilliant, and set it on the page and then it will follow the menu down the side.
Announcer: Do you take that with you everywhere you go?
Douglas: I carry that with me like a crutch. [laughs] Yes, I do, and it's a great help.
Jane: I'm going to ask you, while you're keeping your eye on the dot, I want you to draw a border around the area that appears distorted to you.
Announcer: Douglas is also training himself to read, and even more basically, how to see in a whole new way.
Jane: What if you move your eye there? How much of my face do you see?
Announcer: First he locates his blind spots so he can learn to see around them.
Jane: Okay, then open your eyes and move the board back.
Announcer: Occupational therapist Jane Eckelston teaches him eccentric viewing. Using a high-powered magnifying lens on his better eye, Douglas moves the letters past the one good patch of vision he has left.
Jane: Close your eyes and bring the book right up to your nose.
Douglas: The range -- the range makes a big difference. Just a matter of an inch or two.
Jane: Yes, it does.
Announcer: For Douglas, these small triumphs brighten his outlook when he finds the alternative too dark to consider.
Douglas: Losing your sight is a pretty traumatic thing. I don't know how well I could handle that, and that's why I'm fighting to hold what can be saved.
Announcer: And we've heard that Douglas has now learned how to read with his new magnifying glasses.