by Barbara Pierce and Daniel B. Frye
Everywhere we turn today we read about the impact aging baby boomers are having on the fabric of society. The blindness field is no exception. The increasing incidence of age-related vision loss means that every community has a growing population of blind seniors and those losing vision who are not very eager to learn the skills that could keep them living independently.
The Senior Program at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB) is an outstanding example of what can happen when dedicated and knowledgeable people establish a program for blind seniors. In 1995 the CCB began a support group led by Ray McGeorge, who had recently become blind for the second time. According to his wife Diane, the CCB’s founding director, Ray has always had a credibility in the minds of the blind seniors in the program that she will never have. After all, he has faced and met the special demands of adjusting to blindness in later life. She is just a blind person who learned her skills when she was young, so they don’t believe her when she says that they can learn to do things using their remaining senses. When Ray shows them how to do things, they have to believe him.
From the beginning Ray has been adamant that anyone interested in learning Braille should be encouraged to work on mastering the code. Today a faithful group of seniors gathers from nine to noon each Tuesday in their own space at the center. Duncan Larsen, senior services coordinator, and Sharon Herries, senior services instructor, join Ray in leading the group. Wayne Marshall, senior services technology instructor, provides computer and screen-access instruction for those interested, and travel training and home management skills training are offered to those who want or need specific instruction. But week in and week out strong emphasis is given to Braille. Each senior gets individual instruction, and the students encourage each other.
During the summer months several seniors share in the responsibility of caring for the center’s Legacy Garden, established as a memorial to CCB students who have died. Trees in the area around the garden have also been planted in memory of deceased members of the CCB family. Kimberley Johnson is the staff member most involved in maintaining the garden. Several community volunteers help seniors learn to distinguish between plants and weeds.
In addition to the group that meets weekly at the CCB, three other groups meet monthly in other Denver suburbs. These are much more like traditional support rather than instructional groups, but they too encourage participants to expect more of themselves. Even so, some instruction goes on with members of the Castle Rock group, and the staff are hopeful that these services will be extended to the members of the other two support groups as well. In addition to these group meetings, Sharon Herries visits seniors’ homes to do skills training where they live. Sometimes nothing substitutes for instruction with one’s own appliances, and sometimes the experience of learning new ways of doing things in a central location with others who are dealing with the same challenges provides much more inspiration and motivation. The CCB program enables seniors to benefit from both kinds of learning.
In mid August the Senior Program staff conducted its first four-day residential program with six seniors, though one had to leave for health reasons. They engaged in all the classes taught in the Independence Training Program and reported that they enjoyed the camaraderie and inspiration of the group. The seniors were introduced to Braille and computers. They went grocery shopping and prepared meals together, and they used white canes to travel independently. One participant gained so much confidence in his white cane that he decided to give up the support cane he had been using in addition to the long cane. Later that month he told the staff with understandable pride that he participated in the Democratic Convention and walked two miles, using only his white cane. The students left encouraged and more confident that they could take care of the details of daily life. The program seems to have been a success by every measure, and the staff is committed to conducting more such programs in the future.
It will come as no surprise to hear that funding such innovative and valuable programs for seniors is a perennial problem. For some years the state vocational rehabilitation agency funded the CCB program. When the NFB assumed a leadership role in the fight to establish a separate agency serving blind Coloradans, the Colorado Division for the Blind awarded its contract to serve seniors losing vision to agencies with no experience doing so even though everyone in the field recognized that the CCB had been doing an extraordinary job with the contract. The groups now faced with the need to serve blind seniors immediately turned to the CCB for training and advice. The CCB staff was scrambling to find funding to continue its own program. Even so they made time to train their successors in providing state-supported services. They believed that they had no choice but to help. After all, it was blind seniors who would suffer if they did not. Much to everyone’s relief, the Colorado Trust came through with a $60,000-a-year, four-year grant to fund the CCB program for seniors. Jennifer Stevens, CCB director for community development, has worked hard to supplement this grant. For now the program is safe, and many Denver area seniors have access to as much blindness training as they dare to take advantage of, offered by one of the best staffs in the country.
We can only hope that either the state agency will come to its senses or the CCB grant writers will continue to find money to fund these wonderful programs. The need for them will not disappear any time in the foreseeable future.