Specs saviours

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Some have turned up on spec. Others have left their specs behind. They no longer need them. One woman, Mrs Elsie Knight, still wears her spectacles. “I feel naked without them,” she explains. “I can’t see much through them any more, mind.”

All have been diagnosed as partially sighted or blind. They are on the threshold of a new life, one without sight, or certainly with limited sight, which will test their resolve and inner reserves of strength to the full.

Help is on hand at N-Vision, Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Blind Society, hosting a workshop at its Bosworth Place, Squires Gate base, outlining options available, specific aids supplied or sold, the free Talking Newspaper service, community, care and clinical services, and, perhaps most crucially, the emotional support available to all – including partners and carers who also struggle to come to terms with what sight loss means to loved ones.

Elsie, 83, newly diagnosed with macular degeneration, puts it the most passionately. “I feel angry,” she says. “Angry and isolated and frustrated. I just hope that when I’m 84, I’m able to walk on the Promenade and feel confident and more sure about myself and less reliant on my husband Joe.”

Elsie’s age group is well represented at this meeting of first time N-Vision service users.

Macular degeneration is the biggest reason many are here. It is associated with advancing years. It’s also rising. Some 80 per cent of this historic society’s new service users report with macular degeneration.

Glaucoma, again on the rise, also crops up frequently. But there are some surprises. Jacqueline O’Hara, just 55, had a stroke six months ago, and lost a chunk of her peripheral vision in the process. If it was going to come back it would have happened by now, she was told.

Like Elsie before her, she’s fought back since the stroke, but the loss of sight has threatened more of her quality of life than she ever thought possible. “I irritate myself all the time,” she admits. “I put things down and misjudge where they have landed. I walk out and can’t see certain things. I don’t always recognise people depending on how they approach me. When it first happened I just cried and cried. Now I realise there are people worse off than I am.”

Elsie herself admits she found it easier to get over a stroke, 11 years ago, than the more recent loss of her sight. “It’s just so important,” she admits. “I’d just like to be able to fully independent again, able to walk out on my own, and shop, and do all the things I used to take for granted. My husband’s a great help but it’s not fair on him. And I get so grumpy.”

Emotional and practical support is available from Judith Harrison, society’s community services manager, along with Mel Gallagher, low vision worker, Stephanie Beasley, community volunteer coordinator, Joe Green, low vision centre assistant and Linda Sethi, eye clinic liaison officer.

But service user and supporter Carole Holmes, partially sighted for 30 years, opens up on her own experiences. “You have good days and bad days,” she says. “On good days I can make a cup of tea without spilling the milk, dress myself in the right colours and walk out without falling over. On bad days it’s all incredibly difficult. It’s not so much grumpiness as frustration at your limitations. I now try to live with what I can do and not agonise over what I can’t.”

It’s a tough learning curve for the youngest member of this exclusive club of partially sighted first timers to the blind society. John Dyson, 50, accompanied by wife Lynda, used to walk to the Lake District from their Fylde coast home, or across to Yorkshire. A former squaddie, he left the Army when first diagnosed, at 20, with optic neuritis in one eye, inflammation which causes loss of vision because of swelling and destruction of the optic nerve. That was 30 years ago. Faced with a choice between becoming a dog handler or leaving the Army, John was unemployed for several months, but finally got a job at the council, even became a heavy goods driver, rose through the ranks, and managed accounts until the small print became too difficult to read. He also about becoming supremely fit.

Then optic neuritis struck his other eye, and John learned he was one of the 20-30 per cent of multiple sclerosis sufferers for whom optic neuritis is the first presenting sign. The twist of fate could have unravelled a weaker man. “Lynda’s been there for me,” John admits. “It’s a double whammy. I no longer work, I can’t walk well because of my vision, if my leg plays up I think it’s the MS. I feel kind of – worthless. But you have to get on with life and live within your limitations. I’m still working through that part of it, learning how to talk about it too. But this workshop has helped because it shows I’m not alone. And when you hear someone like Elsie talk about feeling angry and isolated, you know it doesn’t matter how or why or when you lose your sight – you still feel the same. That’s why it’s good that there are people prepared to help us through it.”

The charity is wholly reliant on public funding. To help or learn more, call (01253) 362696.