Silver Dreaming this Christmas - are we doing enough to reach isolated older blind and partially sighted people

Posted: 
16 December 2013

Rebecca Sheehy, Older People's Impact Team Manager at RNIB, asks us to consider isolation amongst older people with sight loss this season.      

A recent poll conducted for the charity Age UK revealed that 450,000 older people are going to spend Christmas Day alone this year. This is a reminder of how isolation can affect older people.

We know that older blind and partially sighted people are at even greater risk of social isolation, so are we doing enough to reach those who are most isolated?

Sight loss is largely age related:

  • Of the almost 2 million people living with sight loss in the UK, over 80 per cent are aged over 60 and 45 per cent are aged over 80.
  • Around 1 in 7 people over the age of 65 are living with sight loss and this rises to 1 in 3 of those over 85.

But what does having sight loss mean for older people? For some it can mean an ever shrinking world. The NatCen Social Research report, Circumstances of people with sight loss, highlights that when compared to their sighted counterparts, people with sight loss experience more difficulty in accessing health services, report poorer wellbeing, reduced self-confidence and lower satisfaction with their overall health. It's not surprising then that around one third of older people with sight loss are also living with some form of depression. Then there are difficulties getting out and using transport. In an RNIB survey 60 per cent of older people with sight loss said they needed someone to help them get out of the house and only 30 per cent of those over retirement age could hail a bus.

Unfortunately as their world shrinks so does the opportunity for organisations such as RNIB to reach them with the message that looking after your sight is a key part of ageing well. Blind and partially sighted people still say that they come across services by chance.

ECLOs in eye clinics and a clear embedded adult eye care pathway are essential, but for those who have already fallen through the cracks in the eye clinic system, and for those whose sight loss is missed due to other conditions masking the symptoms, we need a different approach.

By working in partnership with other organisations who are working with, visiting, supporting, offering services to older people and encouraging staff to "think sight" we can reach those who are isolated.

In Stafford and York an innovative 18 month project, funded from the Big Lottery's Silver Dreams fund, is tackling this issue. The project, called OPTiC (Older People Taking Control), involves RNIB, Action for Blind People, Age UK Stafford and District and York Blind and Partially Sighted Society working with the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS). Technicians from Staffordshire and North Yorkshire FRS have been trained to use an eye screening tool during their regular home fire safety checks. This practical approach has proved so useful that staff from housing associations, falls nurses, and the British Legion have also been trained to use the tool to identify those who need support.

Thanks to the huge FRS reach targeted directly at older people we have offered eye health advice and screening to nearly 24,000 people, and of these more than 2000 have taken up support including support from peers or buddies. In Stafford 48 per cent of participants receiving services were between 75 - 90 years and the oldest person referred for support was 101!

In constrained economic times there is a real risk that the needs of blind and partially sighted people will disappear from view. Working in partnership offers us an innovative way to keep those most isolated in our sights.

For further information contact research@rnib.org.uk