Post by Brian Klotz
Ellie Leach had never used a computer. No email, no games, no web browsing – as she puts it, “I had never even used a typewriter!” Over twenty years ago Ellie, now 78, was diagnosed with macular degeneration, a medical condition that causes vision loss, putting yet another obstacle between herself and tech-savviness.
Today, however, Ellie is the proud owner of an iPad, which she uses to email friends and family, play games, and listen to her favorite music.
“It’s like I’m alive again,” she says. “I feel like I’m a part of everything again.”
In the summer of 2014, Ellie, who for over eight years has been the coordinator of the Framingham Low Vision Peer Support Group for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI), attended MABVI’s annual Senior Connection event. There, a speaker talked about how useful an iPad could be for seniors with visual impairment. Ellie, who had already been intrigued by the device when her daughter-in-law would bring over her own, immediately knew she wanted to learn. She signed up for training through Easter Seals and now has an instructor who regularly visits her to teach her how to use her iPad.
A lifelong music lover, Ellie’s favorite feature is being able to store and listen to all her music through iTunes. Ellie’s playlist is extensive, and includes “a lot of country,” naming Randy Travis, Reba McIntire, and Brookes and Dunn, as well as Lionel Richie, the Carpenters, Bette Midler, and Liberace. Ellie even bought a pair of Bose headphones so she can listen to her music while she works in the kitchen of her retirement community – preferring to set her playlist to “shuffle” mode so she doesn’t know which song will come next.
Technology is even helping Ellie stay more connected with her family and friends through email.
“When I sent Laurie [Werle, MABVI’s Support Group Coordinator] that first email, she was very excited!” she says.
Ellie’s online communication has ventured even further than email. One day when her son, who lives in North Carolina, called, she asked if she could call him back. To his surprise, this call came through Skype, and the two were able to video chat through Ellie’s iPad.
Even something as simple as being able to play solitaire on the device is a revelation for Ellie, who previously had to give up the game when she stopped being able to read the cards. “I thought I would never play again,” she says.
Learning to do all these things with low vision and no experience, however, was a challenge, but one that Ellie approached with a characteristically optimistic attitude.
“I never say I can’t do anything unless I try it,” she says.
Never having even used a computer before, Ellie finds she has to write instructions down step-by-step, and admits that the terminology can still be confusing.
“I don’t really understand the lingo,” she admits.
Taking it in “baby steps,” however, Ellie has been progressively learning how to do more and more with her iPad, never letting herself become discouraged.
“I’ve never felt sorry for myself,” she says. “It doesn’t do any good.”
A lung cancer survivor thanks to early detection and chemotherapy, Ellie knows how to keep it all in perspective.
“As long as I’m still breathing, I’m a happy camper.”
In addition to a determined mindset, Ellie credits much of her success and her independence to a pair of glasses prescribed to her after having a low vision evaluation with Dr. Jen Salvo, Director of Optometric Services for MABVI. Low vision evaluations are offered by MABVI and its affiliated providers throughout the state, and are highly specialized examinations in which an optometrist teaches a patient about adaptive techniques and strategies for maximizing their remaining vision, often with prescribed optical devices.
As the coordinator of MABVI’s Low Vision Peer Support Group in Framingham, Ellie helps share her progress and her adaptive techniques with her group members in their monthly meetings.
“It feels like we’re all family – we’re all in the same boat, all have the same problems,” she says. In addition to the educational and therapeutic aspects, the support group provides a social outlet and friendship to individuals coping with vision loss.
“We have one heck of a time!” says Ellie.
As far as her iPad, Ellie is looking forward to learning even more about how she can use it in her daily life. Learning new skills and technology as a senior with vision loss may not be easy, but as she puts it: “I won’t know unless I try.”
Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired offers iPad training from our certified Occupational Therapists (OTs) for those who are blind or visually impaired. Our OTs can show you how to use certain iPad apps and built-in features to perform tasks such as reading recipes or identifying your medication prescription bottles. In most cases this is covered by medical insurance.
If you or a loved one are interested in learning more about this service, please call MABVI’s Worcester office at (888) 613-2777.