Jewish home vision program keeps elderly residents reading

She prefers to read "biographies or real honest-to-goodness stories about history. I don't like mysteries or trash stuff. I like to read books I can learn from."

Keeping elders vital and learning is an important goal at the home. With a grant from the Endowment Foundation of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, the home brought professionals from the National Association for Visually Handicapped, who trained staffers to work with vision-impaired residents .

In addition, the association helped set up a low-vision library, with large-print books as well as other visual aids including magnifiers, reading and writing guides and special lamps. Eventually, the association will bring in closed-circuit television that magnifies print up to 60 times, enabling people to read and write.

The NAVH has "provided a wonderful, wonderful collection of large-print books, which is just a blessing," said Victoria Baker, assistant activities director at the home.

"It makes such a difference for residents. It's just a blessing to have that kind of donation. It means a lot to the lives of our residents to be able to read that much longer."

The availability of large-print books opens boundaries, Baker said, and improves the quality of elders' lives.

"There are so many people who read and read and read and then their eyes start to fail. If you don't have the gift of large print to hand them, they'll `go inside,'" she said, meaning that such people will retreat into their own worlds.

The impetus for the project began just over a year ago when Jeannine Toussaint, gerontologist and West Coast program director of the National Association for Visually Handicapped, visited the Oakland home to give a talk.

"It was because of that initial talk that the home was selected for the low-vision library project, which the endowment fund is supporting, providing money to put visual aids in, for lectures to be given, for a self-help group to be started," said Toussaint.

"What we're trying to do is equip as many retirement facilities as we can with visual aids so [the] elderly can use residual eyesight to its maximum potential."

Sheila Cahill, a social worker from the association, visits the home quarterly to work with residents and staffers, training them to use vision aids as well as how to cope with the social and emotional implications of diminished vision.

Cahill also talks to them about the need for reading with increased light, preferably sitting in front of a window with the light coming from behind, streaming over the shoulders.

Counseling and one-on-one work form an integral part of the program. For many elders, the emotional impact of eyesight loss is devastating. Before many are willing to learn to use such aids as magnifiers, which require a complete change in reading habits, these elders must go a certain distance toward accepting their loss.

While a number of residents have achieved success with large-print books and magnifiers, others have more difficulty relearning how to read.

Harry Granberg, 86, whose vision was impaired as the result of a retinal artery occlusion about a year ago, has peripheral vision in one eye and none in the other. He has tried reading with a magnifier, but hasn't had much success yet.

"I do feel left out," he said, adding that he would love to be able to read a newspaper again. But when the home begins the closed-circuit TV reading program, Granberg will try again.

Because of NAVH, which has also worked with San Francisco's Jewish Home for the Aged, people who have lost the ability to read are getting a second chance. And emigres will benefit from these programs as well: Russian editions of large-print books are in the works.

When Toussaint lectures on eyesight loss, she said, most people "have no idea of all of the resources available. I try to correct the misconceptions associated with the word `blind.' There are very few fully blind people [in the United States], but 20 million people with partial eyesight. We coined the phrase `hard of seeing.'"

But hard-of-seeing elders can regain the ability to read and write and to maneuver. Eddy, who worked most of her life supervising typists, describes facing the loss as an adjustment, similar to that of retirement. One regret is that the many Jewish books that filled her bookcases at home are not yet available in large print.

Baker would like to change that. One goal is to get Golda Meir's "My Life" published in large print. Meanwhile, she's using a photocopier to enlarge selections from I.L. Peretz and other Jewish writers for her literature discussion group.

"We can all read together," she said. "I love doing this."