Caregivers’ Corner: Sensory Changes

Joan Jackson
By Joan Jackson March 15, 2010 18:08

Joan Jackson

I have a precious friend, now in her late 80s, who is tough, bright and energetic (she still takes tap-dance lessons).

She has survived a massive stroke and the loss of her husband and many of her friends, and through it all I’ve never heard her complain. But several years ago, elbows on the table after Chinese lunch, she looked me straight in the eye and announced firmly, “This getting older thing is not for wimps.” I’ve run into that statement many times since, but it is her voice that I always hear – matter of fact, and more than a little irritated.

Even if we’re in good health and do all the right things, this age thing creeps up on us and our loved ones, and offers challenges that can be both surprising and irksome. Our vision, hearing and senses of taste, smell and touch make subtle and not-so-subtle changes beginning as early as our forties. All of it can be handled with some ingenuity.

Let’s focus on changes in vision and hearing this time around and get to the others next issue. In the interim, if you’d like to learn more, The Merck Manual of Health & Aging edited by Dr. Mark H. Beers is a great resource and less than $10 in paperback.

VISION: With age, the lens of the eye stiffens and we begin to have difficulty seeing things that are close, like reading the newspaper or tweezing a pesky chin hair. Magnifying mirrors, over-the-counter reading glasses and a magnifying lens next to the phone book are cheap, simple coping tools.

  • Seeing in dim light becomes challenging as the eye’s lens becomes denser and decreases the amount of light that can enter. After age 60, you need three times more light to read than you did at 20. Increase the wattage of light bulbs around your home, especially those in reading lamps.
  • It takes more time for your eyes to respond to light as your eye muscles stiffen and weaken. Walking into a darkened room or bright sunlight can leave you temporarily blind. When entering or leaving the movie theater, pause to let your eyes adjust.
  • Nerve cells that transmit signals from your eye to your brain decrease. This shoots your depth perception and ability to judge distance all to heck. When you’re driving, take extra time to let cars pass rather than leaping into a left turn (use the time to wave at the guy behind you who’s honking).

HEARING: As we age, we begin to lose the ability to hear higher-pitched sounds, including women’s and children’s voices and certain musical instruments. This makes it harder to hear consonants; it may seem as if family and friends are deliberately mumbling. Hearing aids may help.

  • Earwax accumulation increases with age and can affect your hearing. Ask your doctor if you need earwax removed.
  • Other age-related changes to the ears can affect your balance. Again, talk to your doctor.

Joan Jackson is a partner with Peter Carrillo in Practical Dreamer, providing caregiver and family coaching and other services, including free caregiver support groups sponsored by the Area 12 Agency on Aging. Contact her at 588-1835 if you’d like to join a group.

Joan Jackson
By Joan Jackson March 15, 2010 18:08
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