The Braille Monitor                                                                                       April 2003

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Blazing a Trail A New Retreat Program Aims to Help Seniors Cope with Blindness

by Carissa Richards

Ruth Hirschfeld, left, and Hazel Phillips prepare food while blindfolded as part of a week-long retreat program teaching seniors who are losing their sight to cope with blindness.   Those with some remaining vision wore sleepshades for the lessons.
Ruth Hirschfeld, left, and Hazel Phillips prepare food while blindfolded as part of a week-long retreat program teaching seniors who are losing their sight to cope with blindness. Those with some remaining vision wore sleepshades for the lessons.

From the Editor: The following story appeared in the Sacramento Bee on Friday, February 21. Bryan Bashin, the executive director of the Sacramento Society for the Blind, is a member of the NFB of California board of directors. Priscilla Ching, quoted in the article, is a 2000 National Federation of the Blind scholarship winner and holds a master's degree from the Louisiana Tech/Louisiana Center program in orientation and mobility. Perhaps this article will inspire affiliates and chapters across the country to develop similar programs. Here is the story:

One Saturday two years ago Edith Gutierrez was reading the newspaper. Sitting in church the next day, she tried to read, and all she could see were wavy dark lines on the page.

That's how quickly she lost her sight to macular degeneration, a progressive, irreversible disease that is the leading cause of blindness in seniors.

Gutierrez, eighty-five, was forced to give up reading, and her daughter now shops for her. Such dependence can drain seniors' confidence and leave them feeling isolated.

That explains why Gutierrez could be found recently sitting blindfolded in an Elk Grove home, waiting for a chance to chop an onion. Part of a pilot project, she's helping the Sacramento Society for the Blind launch a one-of-a-kind project.

The free program, called Senior Intensive Retreat, will bring individuals fifty-five and older to live in this five-bedroom rented house for ten days. Here visually impaired staff members from the society will teach them how to live with blindness.

Believed to be the only such retreat in the nation, it officially opens Monday with seven seniors from Sacramento, Woodland, and Davis.

"It is a homey feeling, but believe me, we are not the so-called happy home for the blind," said Bryan Bashin, executive director of the Sacramento Society for the Blind. "We are as much of a boot camp as these guys will ever face."

Gutierrez was part of a trial run of six seniors, ages seventy-five to eighty-five, from Sacramento, Citrus Heights, Roseville, Woodland, and North Highlands. They spent four days in the home recently, helping staff members fine-tune the program, which is open to seniors throughout the Central Valley. It is funded by a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the state Department of Rehabilitation.

At the home group members slept two to a room. Brown and gray geometric prints or peach floral patterns decorated their twin-size bedspreads and curtains. A Picasso print and a drawing of a Victorian home hung on the dining room walls.

While the digs were nice--large couches by a fireplace, a pool and hot tub amid lush foliage on a one-acre lot--this was no vacation.

The seniors, who called themselves "The Trailblazers," learned how to do everything from cooking to applying makeup to walking using a white cane. When they felt comfortable, they covered their eyes with sleepshades to keep from relying on what vision they have left.

Every waking minute was filled with instruction. Group members helped prepare meals, learning how to slice onions or sausage without cutting a finger. They learned how to work computer programs that could read text to them.

And while these tips for daily living were helpful, the home's four staff members had more important goals. Priscilla Ching, the assistant director, said they were building confidence and a positive attitude about blindness.

"I want them to gain a sense of independence and freedom--freedom of choice to live the way they want to live and not be dependent on family or friends or neighbors," she said, having just finished leading the group on a cane trip outside. "If we give them the tools, we give the choice back to them."

After a couple of days at the home, the seniors went public. They showed up at Elk Grove's Old Spaghetti Factory and Target, sleepshades on and white canes in hand.

At Target the six split into two groups and sought help from customer service employees. Debi Black, a staff member, said they need to learn where to turn for assistance.

After comparing sizes of George Foreman Grills and shaking and smelling packages in the candy aisle, they headed for the doors, white canes tapping on the beige linoleum. Sighted customers walked by, their eyes traveling up the canes before stopping on faces wearing navy-blue eye shades resting just beneath gray hair.

"You have to come out of the closet to admit that you can't see and have a problem, and then assume responsibility for yourself," said Ruth Hirschfeld, eighty-four, one of the group members. "The sighted people have to adjust to us. They are as scared of us as we are of total blindness.

"They either overlook or underestimate us. That's where the cane comes in. It tells them we are blind and we will ask if we need help."

Several of the six seniors also have glaucoma, the third leading cause of blindness, behind macular degeneration and diabetes, in people age fifty-five and older. The society's Bashin estimates there are 20,000 blind or visually impaired adults in Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado, Yolo, and Sutter Counties. Half, he said, are over age fifty-five.

"In the end this isn't about blindness," Bashin said. "This is about whether you are open to change and at what age do you close down to change."

But change can be difficult, especially for seniors, he said. Traditional retreats are usually months long and held in an institutional setting, sometimes outside California. Seniors, he said, need a comfortable environment to help them ease into a new way of living.

Nancy Burns, president of the National Federation of the Blind of California, said the Sacramento society's retreat is the first short-term residential program she has heard of.

"It takes a real adventurous person to go to another state and stay at a center for six to nine months," she said from her office in Burbank. "And most seniors aren't ready for that kind of experience."

Those in the trial-run program said the short stay and homelike setting were what they needed.

"This is all so new to me, every aspect of it," Gutierrez said, sitting on a kitchen stool, eyes covered and waiting her turn with the knife. "I'm learning every day to continue to be independent. At our age you want to be free. This gives us that freedom."

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