Double Vision!

Melda and Graham Townsley work as a team to ensure that Graham retains his independence and quality of life despite his worsening vision. By Sara Rogers

Melda Townsley believes a bang to the head during a car accident several years ago hastened the deterioration of her husband Graham’s eyesight. But neither she nor Graham have let this restrict his independence.

Graham is legally blind, suffering from a form of macular degeneration as well as glaucoma (which is under control). He and Melda (aged in their 80s) still own and run their management consultancy business. Melda is also an examiner for Speech New Zealand. Their three children all live overseas. Despite Graham’s loss of vision, he leads a very active and independent life, with support from Melda when needed.

The couple are both keen travellers, but Graham has pared back on adventures to places he has never visited before, or is unfamiliar with. Melda wanted Graham to feel ‘included’ in her solo travels, so invested in a small voice recorder which she carries around with her and simply chats into.

“Recording everything is so easy. The recorder fits into your hand and you don’t have to yell into it, you just talk normally as if you were speaking to someone on the phone.”

During her travels Melda talked into the recorder as if Graham were walking alongside her and they were having a conversation. She talked about the different things she was hearing and smelling, as well as any funny or interesting sights.

To celebrate her 80th birthday, Melda decided to travel to Sydney, with the intention of climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Because of Graham’s poor eyesight, he didn’t feel comfortable travelling to a new and unfamiliar destination but encouraged Melda to go. Melda couldn’t take the recorder with her on the Sydney Harbour Bridge climb because you are not allowed to hold anything in your hands. Instead, Melda recorded the experience when she finished the climb, while the experience was still fresh in her mind.

When she returned home, Graham listened to the recording and was able to appreciate the running commentary. And because he can visualise things so well, he really felt that he had been with Melda and had shared the experience.

“The beauty of a voice recorder is that you can listen to the recording as many times as you like, allowing you to relive the experiences time and time again, until the next trip where you record over the top of it,” she says.

Gradually, on a daily basis, both of them are accommodating Graham’s compromised vision. Graham remains as independent as he can, with minimum help from Melda.One thing Melda did find difficult was the use of ‘visual symbolism’ and how often this was used. Sometimes she would say to Graham “now look here”, or “do you see what I mean?”. And Graham would reply, “I can’t look here”.

So Melda did what she terms ‘advanced monitoring’ on everything she was saying to Graham, weeding out casual, careless expressions about sight and replacing them with “what do you think about so-and-so” or “let me explain what I mean”.

One thing Graham doesn’t like is for Melda to take his arm and ‘guide’ him. Instead, when they are out and about Melda walks slightly ahead of Graham so she can warn him of obstacles which might trip him up (“there are a couple of steps coming up”, or “watch this little hump in the footpath”).

Graham uses a walking stick which they have wrapped with white tape so it looks like a cane. This helps others to be aware that Graham’s sight is impaired.

Melda does the washing and ironing, but she doesn’t put Graham’s clothes away. Graham does this himself so he knows where his things are.

Graham is still active in the kitchen thanks to aids including talking scales, which were given to him by his daughter. He uses a device which assists with chopping vegetables, and lights have been strategically placed so he can read the temperature when turning the oven on.

“You also get into a routine of putting things in the same place each time when you live with someone whose vision is impaired,” says Melda. “For example I use Flora margarine and Graham uses Olivio. The containers sit on top of each other, and Graham’s is always the top container.”

Melda does the driving but she and Graham confer together about which routes to take to destinations.

To help differentiate between clothing colours, Melda suggests sewing a button or something similar onto the backs of items so they can be quickly assessed by feel. A round button might mean it’s a green garment, a square button a blue one, and so on.

With their children and grandchildren all living overseas, Graham connects with them via telephone. Melda has an iPad and uses FaceTime, but Graham is unable to see the images so prefers telephone contact.

When Graham and Melda travel together, Melda makes sure she wears her bright pink hat so Graham can easily identify her in a crowd!

Learning to live with Graham’s loss of sight has been a gradual, daily adjustment for he and Melda. “Graham is very independent, but if he needs my help he knows I’m there for him,” she says. “That’s what I signed up for a long time ago!”

Living with Vision Impairment

  • Eliminate clutter: put things away as soon as you’ve finished using them, always return them to the same place, and clear away any unnecessary items.
  • Install lighting under kitchen cabinets or above cooking areas to brighten work areas. Also ensure there is enough lighting to illuminate work surfaces in the garage and other areas where you need to see fine details.
  • Make door frames and light switches easier to see by painting them a colour that contrasts with the walls around them.
  • Reduce glare problems by positioning televisions and computers where sun or room lighting doesn’t shine directly on the screens.
  • Magnifying things can make them easier to see. Consider large print books; use the text zoom feature found on many websites; use magnifiers to help with reading and sewing; use telephones with large buttons.
  • Pour dark liquid into white cups, and light liquids into dark cups; the contrast will make it easier to gauge levels when pouring and drinking.
  • Use white on the insides of cupboards so bright and contrasting items are easier to find.
  • Add markings you can recognise by touch to appliances such as ovens, cooktops, microwaves, washing machines, driers, and dishwashers.
  • Give yourself extra time to orient yourself and move around unfamiliar spaces.
  • Invest in aids designed for people with vision impairments; we like the Royal NZ Foundation of the Blind online shop where you’ll find Braille products, canes, magnifiers, handwriting ids, labellers, large print items, voice recorders, digital talking book players, kitchen equipment, health care aids, lighting, sunglasses, timepieces, personal care aids, and recreational and fun products.