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When elders need new glasses or hearing aids

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Keeping up-to-date with an elder's eye glass prescription and hearing aids seems to be a no-brainer. Why wouldn't you, if their quality of life can be improved? Well, when that elder has dementia, there can be many reasons why the caregiver finally gives up. The biggest issue is often just getting the elder through an exam.

Eyes, ears and teeth. All three can become huge issues when our elders have dementia. As with oral health issues, there's more to keeping an elder's care in a good area than most of us consider until we try to get our elder to an eye doctor for an exam.

My dad always wore thick, heavy glasses. He was a voracious reader all of his life, but dementia stole from him much of his ability to remember and comprehend what he read. He still, however, enjoyed some magazines, and also television. Dad was a person who needed his glasses to see enough to just push his walker across the floor, so they were vital even if he couldn't read.

To complicate matters, Dad, like many seniors, had cataracts. He was scheduled to have them removed after the brain surgery. That idea had to be scratched, as his brain surgery outcome was so horrendous that little else could safely be done for him.

Yet, the years went on and Dad's eyes grew worse. He lost weight and his frames with the heavy lenses would slide down his nose. I tried using a strap like athletes sometimes wear, but he'd tear at that to get it off. He'd get sores on his nose and behind his ears as well, because of the poor fit.

Eye and Hearing Exams and Dementia -- A Tough Mix

I took Dad to an eye doctor who attempted to do an exam. Dad had no clue as to what he was supposed to do and became so anxious and paranoid that he thought the doctor was doing experiments on him. It was agony for me to watch and nothing significant was accomplished.

After settling him down at the nursing home, I contacted the optometrist. We discussed the issue and he said he would try to get the same prescription Dad originally had, only in a smaller lens so they wouldn't be so heavy. Those attempts failed. We ended up with "new" glasses in the old shape and size. We gained a spare, which was good, but they were no better than the others, so we struggle with eye issues until Dad's death.

I hear regularly from readers with similar issues. Their loved one with Alzheimer's disease just cannot take an eye exam. There's a similar problem with hearing tests. How is someone supposed to indicate what they are hearing during these sensitive tests when much of what they hear is a voice in their own head?

How is someone with dementia, who basically lives in a different reality than the rest of us, supposed to signal to the tester the nuances of sound intensity during a hearing test? There are tests professionals can give infants for both eyes and ears and maybe that is the answer, but I have not heard from readers who've found a satisfactory result even from this approach.

Hearing and Sight: Your Best Has to Be Good Enough

The care of an elder's sight and hearing becomes another case of avoiding caregiver guilt. We want the best for our loved one. We are willing to take the time, spend the money and run the errands if our loved ones can have a better quality of life. But how many doctors do you try? How many times do you put your elder through these tests only to get poor results? When do you decide enough is enough and simply concentrate on the issues you can do something about?

This is an individual decision. Certainly, try to get any medical help you can. Look for a doctor with patience and experience with elders. But if you have done your best and it just doesn't work, let the guilt go.

Look for creative ways to keep glasses on, teeth in and hearing aids in good order. Then focus on what the elder can do. Are large print books an option? Check your library. How about recorded books through your state's program for the blind? If the dementia is too advanced for that, magazines with bright pictures may be welcome. Try music from a CD player or television programs with music and dancing. Be creative and do what you can. Then, drop the guilt. For you, the caregiver, this becomes one more case where your best has to be good enough.