Sight Loss Services

By Brian Morris

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

Each year, many Cape Cod residents learn that their eyesight is declining, and that they need to change their lifestyles to adapt. It often takes a long time for that reality to sink in, and making the necessary changes can be difficult. Vision impairment can lead to feelings of isolation, especially because of restrictions on driving. But a Dennis-based agency is removing the fear from sight loss, and showing vision-impaired people how to lead normal lives.

Mirn Riel sits at her kitchen table in a quiet Barnstable neighborhood, laughing warmly and sharing stories about her long life, and overseas trips with her husband. Born in Alaska, she explains that "Mirn" is the Scottish name for Marion. She's a short woman in her mid-80s, with wavy, grayish hair. A striking feature is her large, bright blue eyes, which appear wide open at all times.

Mirn Riel: "Just to look at a person, you don't know that they have an eyesight problem particularly."

Mirn doesn't wear glasses indoors. After awhile, it becomes apparent that her eyes never move from one side to the other, but appear fixed, looking straight ahead. Mirn suffers from macular degeneration - she still has peripheral vision, but can't see what's directly in front of her.

Mirn Riel: "I can still walk down to the bank in the village. But if I see someone standing, I ask them if they'd assist me across the street, 'cause by the time you look this way and that way, some cars stop but suppose they didn't? So you have to be a little careful. And people are very nice if you ask for help. I've never found anyone that didn't wanna help you."

Mirn also finds help through a support group she's attended every month for seven years at the Unitarian Church in Barnstable.

Mirn Riel: "It's a social meeting also, which I think is important if you live alone, or you have a problem. These people all understand each other, just as other groups do. We all talk and compare, and I notice most of the women, it gradually gets worse."

She found the support group through Dennis-based Sight Loss Services. The agency began twenty-five years ago when Dennis resident June Wenberg was struggling with her own eye condition, retinitis pigmentosa. She had to travel to Boston to attend a support group, since there were none on Cape Cod at the time. Eventually, Wenberg founded Sight Loss Services, and held her first support group in South Yarmouth with six people in attendance. In the quarter-century since, Sight Loss Services has expanded Cape-wide, and helps 2,000 visually impaired people each year from Provincetown to Bourne. Wenberg says many people have trouble accepting their vision loss at first.

June Wenberg: "We'll have someone come into a support group. And they're in denial, some of them will cry. They'll go away, they don't wanna come back again. But then they work their way back. And when I see somebody come in who's so depressed, and I see the rest of the group close in around them, and give them a helping hand. And one of the nicest things is when you see that person who came in so depressed and distraught reach out and help somebody else when they come in."

Wenberg says there is a definite correlation between the Cape's increasing elderly population, and the number of vision-impaired people she sees. Many of them are required by law to turn in their licenses when their doctors certify them as legally blind.

June Wenberg: "The one big challenge for all of our clients, mostly now, is when they're not able to drive anymore, and they're isolated. It's really the hardest thing that they have to do, because it takes away their independence completely."

The mission of Sight Loss Services is to return at least some of that lost independence. In addition to support groups, they offer information on eye care physicians, Braille services and handicap placards. There are also adaptive aids like large print telephone dials, reading machines, and an ingenious little device that office assistant Mary McGann demonstrates.

Mary McGann: "So they call this a liquid level indicator, or 'Say When.' And if you put it into a cup of liquid, and as it gets toward the top it'll buzz to let you know, don't fill it any further."

Another popular aid is talking books from the Perkins Audio Library, which require special four-track cassette players.

Instructional cassette tape: "Behind the side selector switch is another V-shaped rocker switch which controls the speed at which the cassette tape is played . . ."

June Wenberg says that by using the tapes, a vision impaired person is taking an important first step: acknowledging that he or she needs them.

June Wenberg: "You'd be surprised how I have to cajole people to use 'em. Once they accept 'em, that means they have a vision problem (laughter) But once they got 'em, you can't get 'em away."

Accepting vision impairment is often the hardest step for those facing it. But despite the many problems of declining vision, Sight Loss Services hopes to make the solutions a little easier to see.

For more information about Sight Loss Services, call 508-394- 3904 or 1-800-427-6842. Or you can e-mail them at:

Broadcast April 12, 2006

Brian Morris reporrts for the Cape and Islands NPR stations.