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New calls for national program to support seniors with vision loss

A new report highlighting the impact that vision loss has on quality of life for an estimated 100,000 older Australians is calling for a federally-funded program to provide affordable aids.

The report also calls for financial support of vision aids in private health insurance policies and further research to quantify the impact that aids, technologies and services can have on quality of life and independence of people with vision loss.

Macular Disease Foundation Australia, which commissioned the report, has proposed replacing state and territory government programs with a national scheme it estimates would cost $30 million per year to implement and evaluate, with an annual allowance of between $667 and $2,400 per person depending on vision assessment.

Low Vision, quality of life and independence: A review of the evidence on aids and technologies, produced by the George Institute for Global Health, outlines the benefits of low vision aids for those with vision loss but highlights several barriers to accessing them in Australia.

Julie Heraghty

“The major critical barrier is affordability and it always has been,” Macular Disease Foundation Australia CEO Julie Heraghty told Australian Ageing Agenda.

She said the largest group of people in Australia who have vision loss and blindness are those over the age of 65 affected by age-related macular degeneration, which impacts a person’s central vision and their ability to read, drive and see people’s faces.

While cost is the main barrier, she said most life-changing aids and supports were not big-ticket items.

“We are talking about smaller items that can make a huge difference, such as appropriate lighting, optical magnifiers, big button telephones, right up to text-to-voice computerised programs with reading machines,” Ms Heraghty said.

“Technology has taken us now to a place that is really going to support people with low vision aids. Accessibility features on your iPhone or your iPad, for example, are all very important things.”

A magnifying device to aid low vision.

Other barriers to access identified in the report include:

  • highly-fragmented services
  • inadequate referral pathways
  • inadequate co-management plans between eye care practitioners and low vision services, and
  • poor consumer information and knowledge about services.

Ms Heraghty said responsibility to ensure affordability of vision aids and technologies had been shuffling between state and federal governments and commonwealth portfolios for over a decade and now fell between aged care and disability reforms. She said:

“We were hopeful and given the indication by successive governments that older Australians with vision loss and blindness would be catered for. It is not a huge number and they were cut out of the NDIS and told they must go into the aged care system.”

However, Ms Heraghty said the aged care system did not have the adequate expertise, funding or capability, and they did not want duplication.

The report’s findings and recommendations aimed to draw a line in the sand and provide the federal government with the evidence and a way forward to resolving the matter, she said.

Aged care resources

A text-to-speech reading device.

In aged care, low vision aids and technology can be shared to benefit many older people, Ms Heraghty said.

“A reading machine can listen to books and the daily newspaper. That makes a big difference to someone in a residential aged care facility.”

The foundation can also provide facilities with a free information kit and guides on low vision aids and technology.

“One of the things really important in aged care is to be aware of early detection for eye disease because now we have very effective treatment for one form,” she said.

Call 1800 111 709 or visit the foundation’s website to order a free kit.

Download a copy of the report here.

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