Braille Monitor                          March 2020

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Keeping My Balance

by Annie Schlesinger

From the Editor: Annie joined the NFB shortly after moving to Tucson in 1998. She has been chapter secretary, on the chapter board, and for years sent out email notifications. She is a member of the Tucson Society of the Blind, a self-help group and co-leader of the Low Vision Support Group at her senior complex. She enjoys reading and playing games.

Since falls are the leading cause of death for people over fifty, this article is very important to everyone, the assumption being that either we are over fifty or hope to be some day. Here is what Annie says about dealing with aging, blindness, and balance:

Problems with balance happen more often as we age. At age eighty-three, I want to reduce my risk of falling and continue to get around independently using my long white cane. “Having good balance means being able to control and maintain your body’s position, whether you are moving or remaining still. Good balance helps you walk without staggering, get up from a chair without falling, climb stairs without tripping, and bend over without falling. Good balance is important to help you get around, stay independent, and carry out daily activities” (NIH).

Before our mid-sixties most of us do not think about balance. But many deaths are related to hip fractures and traumatic brain injuries. As we live longer and have chronic conditions, we also take medications that affect balance. Vision and balance are highly integrated in the brain; thus, poor vision can equal poor balance.

The inner ear part that is responsible for balance is the vestibular system; a number of physical problems can affect this system. The vestibular system works with other systems in the body such as visual and muscle and joint receptors which maintain the body’s position at rest and in motion.

Last year I had sessions with a physical therapist for the Epley Maneuver which is the treatment for my recurring vertigo. I then had some sessions with her about my balance. Fortunately, I have been active and have exercised for years. So far my balance is okay, but as I look around Fellowship Square, my retirement complex, I see many folks using rollators/walkers for balance. The walkers are also great to carry things: grocery bags, laundry, trash, etc.

After some research and discussions with orientation and mobility instructors, I found these three options for someone with poor balance and using a long white cane:

1. The way to use a walker with my long white cane is to probe ahead with the cane, take one step with the walker, and repeat cane-walker, one step at a time. It is very slow!

2. I have trained using a support cane in step with the long white cane, and it is faster than one stepping with the walker, but I do not feel as secure.

3. It is possible for a blind person to sit in a wheelchair, propel it with their feet, and use the long white cane to check ahead. I tried it and it works; safe, but also slow and unappealing.

Faced with these choices, maintaining my balance becomes very important. I do my prescribed exercises for balance and other exercises to maintain my strength and cardiovascular health. I do stretches for my shoulder tendinitis.

Some exercises help make up for a balance disorder by moving the head and body in certain ways. The body learns muscle memory, and in theory, gets used to being off balance and recovering. Exercises can be developed for an individual by a physical therapist or trainer who understands the balance system. It is never too late to start! Pima Council on Aging, SAAVI, and some health plans offer exercise and balance classes. There are some aspects of aging that can’t be avoided, but by practice, maintaining balance is one I can proactively fight.

References: Mayo Clinic, Vision Aware,, National Institute on Aging.

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