Post Title: 5 Ways to Encourage Those with Sight Loss

A Request for Help

I received a phone message asking me to call my brother-in-law back. We played phone tag for a few hours but I finally reached him. After a bit of small talk, he came to the point. “I have an elderly woman in the grief support group I lead at church who could really use your help. She has the same eye condition you do. She’s 93 and has lost so much sight, she’s become fearful. She’s batting hearing loss, too. “

I briefly wondered if she didn’t have AMD, macular degeneration, which would be more consistent with her age. Sometimes people just lump eye conditions together without knowing the specifics of their sight loss. With my condition, I have no peripheral vision. With AMD, they lose their central vision first. In practical terms, I’m constantly running into things that are outside of my line of sight. I see through a tunnel. Someone with macular degeneration has holes in their vision and see the outsides of images but not the main part and even that fades away. I can only imagine how frustrating that is. But there are many commonalities to sight loss, and I address these in my talks.

“I would be happy to speak to her,” I said immediately. “I’ll encourage her in any way I can.”

“That would be helpful. She’s depressed and says she doesn’t feel like she has any purpose anymore.”

Unfortunately, the words sounded all too familiar. Many of the people who attend my talks at senior centers struggle with finding purpose while trying to cope with various advanced stages of sight loss. Oftentimes, they need to air their concerns and fears to someone who “knows.” I love to listen and share what I have learned through my own journey.

“Sure, just let me know when and I’ll make myself available.”

“There may be another woman too. Her husband recently passed away and she is losing her sight, too. Her daughter helps out with transportation but with her husband gone, she’s pretty isolated.”

That, too, sounded familiar. In the normal aging process, losing the companionship of a longtime spouse is hard enough without throwing sight loss into the mix. That meant the person either can’t or doesn’t feel comfortable driving, may not have a support system for transport, which increases loneliness and the feeling of isolation. Sight loss may cause an individual not to prepare meals, or complete everyday activities. Worry and fears about their safety kick in. A once outgoing, secure person can easily fall into depression, and as the first woman my brother-in-law mentioned, feel they have no purpose. These feelings have intensified over the past eight months since the pandemic began.

I have been on both sides of the encouragement spectrum. Coming to terms with sight loss is mentally exhausting, scary, overwhelming, and frustrating. Embarrassment and shame often help me back. I needed to become my own cheerleader. Writing my memoirs helped me to understand my feelings better. Open dialogue began a transformation process of my thoughts and outlook. But it wasn’t until I met others who coped positively with some of the same challenges I did that real hope filled my own vision. I am so eager to pay it forward.

I’ve brainstormed a short list of ways I feel are important to keep in mind when I’m asked to encourage someone with sight loss. This list is only a start. I’m sure you can think of other “best practices” to adhere to when you’re asked to boost the morale of others.

5 Ways to Offer Encouragement

Be Approachable

Whether it’s a friend or a stranger, the first step is to connect. That may mean going out of our own comfort zone to reach out. But it’s worth it. How we approach the situation may differ, depending of how we know that person and if it’s in person or online. In this post, I will be talking about face-to-face encouragement.

If it’s someone we identify with through a group situation, such as church, a club, or even the parent of a friend, we can ask about family members, a hobby or interest, a routine, or if the person is still at the workplace, a job. If it’s a stranger, I introduce myself and establish areas of common interest. I like to meet new people so I show this by my interest in their lives. Focusing on the other person is a good way to develop rapport. So I smile. People quickly brighten to a smile even if they can’t see it. A smile can be heard in someone’s voice. It also opens the door to communication. Then I ask some questions in a gentle, non-intrusive way while offering little bits of information about myself. That give and take puts us on equal footing. It’s always helpful to reach even to those we don’t know if we put the other person before ourselves.

Be Genuine

Our personalities may be different but we have to be true to who we are. We need to be genuine. It’s easy to spot fake concern. It can be found in an overly bright voice that almost raps someone in the knuckles for failing to see their world in the same way. Invite people to see hope by humbly modeling an attitude of joy and let that happen for the one you’re encouraging in its own time and way. When we “tell” people “perk up” and “it’s not that bad,” and “be grateful,” or “have faith” I can tell you firsthand, the encouragement stops at surface level. We need to be positive without being judgmental. We can offer hope through whatever way we are wired if we do it from the heart, and from experience and caring. I often admit I don’t have it all together, but as long as I’m moving forward, I’m making progress. Through my tone and words, I invite others to join me in that walk. Part of me being genuine is my humor. So I often share little anecdotes of things my sight loss has caused. If we can laugh at ourselves, we can see it’s okay to be imperfect, and that helps us to reduce stress and move forward. Being genuine also makes us more approachable and opens up communication.

Be Attentive

Being attentive means listening. This is key to understanding how others view their lives and what they struggle with. Sometimes we are so quick to want to “fix” the situation, we miss acknowledging the actual struggle. Part of why a person feels depressed is holding his or her feelings inside. If they never get to air them, they remain stuck inside. I remember being around people who had all the answers. They said what they had done in my situation without taking my feelings or personality into consideration. Whenever I found the courage to voice a concern, my encourager would launch into a long-winded story of their own turmoil, challenge and ultimate solution. I used to ‘lose sight’ of my own concerns, nodding in agreement to whatever was said but no further along in coping on my own. Listening is an art perfected through practice. Acknowledging anxieties, worries and alarms is also important. “The fear of not seeing your friends and loved one’s faces is really scary. I understand” (if we do). “I hear you saying your fear of getting hurt while living alone overwhelms you.” Stating what you’ve heard makes it real for those in the midst of the struggle.

Offer Advice

When appropriate, it’s helpful to share our experiences and how we have overcome a specific struggle with sight loss. Offering advice comes with sensitivity, and limits. If someone asks, I seek to understand their situation and tailor my response to how my experience can help them. I try to gauge the level of answer they want. For example, if the question is “how did you get past the embarrassment of asking for help?” I might ask what kind of help the person is hesitant to ask for. Is it a general reluctance to ask for help because the person has been self-reliant for so long? Or is help in finding the ladies’ room at church? Is it in asking for a ride somewhere? Or asking for help in transportation? My answer will vary according to their purpose. In that situation, I often toss in the piece of advice another blind person taught me: Failing to ask someone for help robs them of the ability to say yes, and give it. We actually prevent them from growing and using their abilities to help us and in doing something that will make both of us feel good.

Be Pro-active

When planning to encourage someone in the trenches dealing with their sight loss, think of practical tips and resources you have learned you can share with them, if asked. For example, I arm myself with a couple of local phone numbers that offer help in transportation, counseling, low vision testing, etc. If our talk goes in that direction, and I’m asked, I will give them the numbers to seek help. I might even offer to call the number with that person, as it has helped me in the past. For someone who is isolated, I might have a form to sign up for digital book recordings tucked away in my bag – as this service has helped me deal with my own isolation. Lighting has long been a struggle for me, so if I’m asked, I talk about how important lighting has been in helping me stay safe in my home environment. Or how a flashlight (especially a specific one that the Bureau of Blindness outfitted me with). But I don’t push any of these things unless I’m asked. I just like to be prepared. I also have a book I share that provides practical strategies for living with vision loss. It covers such a variety of topics from managing stress and nurturing your thoughts to practical application of tips to make life easier, such as cooking and eating by using your sense of touch and hearing, organizing one’s living space, managing hard-to-spot things, handling finances and legal documents as well as embracing technology to make life easier.

When you are approachable and can make a positive connection with someone else, encouragement follows. If you are genuine and really take time to be attentive by listening and to trying to understand where the other person is coming from, you can provide encouragement. Offering advice in ways the person you are seeking to encourage can benefit from also helps. Being pro-active in offering strategies and resources also encourages those in need. To sum up what’s involved in paying it forward, think of how you feel when you’re discouraged. Be empathetic and sensitive to the person you want to give hope to. Share your experiences but be careful to keep their purpose in mind. It’s not about blowing your own horn. It’s about filtering hope into someone’s life. I sometimes think it’s like plumping up someone’s courage, much as we would a pillow to make it more comfortable, which eventually enables us to relax and sleep. Encouraging someone has to do with being positive ourselves. Unless we see possibilities, we can’t give that outlook to others.

What other attributes do you consider important when asked to encourage others?

You have just read “Five Ways to Encourage Those with Sight Loss” by Amy Bovaird. Copyright September 29, 2020. All rights reserved.  Please feel free to comment, or contact me directly.