Low vision is a condition broadly-defined as any loss in vision that affects a person’s functional abilities but cannot be corrected by glasses, contact lenses, medicine, or surgery. Although low vision is not a normal part of aging1, it typically develops from eye diseases in which age is a risk factor such as age-related macular degernation (A.M.D.), diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, and glaucoma. Therefore, the majority of individuals with low vision are age 65 and older.2
Those with low vision who intend on aging in place must take extra measures to ensure their independence at home. While certain aspects of a living environment may be suitable for more capable eyes, the simple fact remains that older adults with low vision will likely need additional modifications to help prevent falls and avoid other safety hazards.
The Three C’s for Low Vision
When it comes to trying to address the unique challenges that individuals with low vision face at home, there are three helpful (and memorable) principles to keep in mind: color, contrast, and cues.
Color is an effective way to bring attention to something, signal a warning, and distinguish transitions. Too much of the same color can make things difficult for individuals with low vision, so it is important to consider how to use colors in ways that highlight rather than camouflage. Too many colors, on the other hand, can be visually distracting and also cause problems. Finding a healthy middle is key.
Contrast deals with juxtaposing something that is light with something that is dark. Contrast can be used to more easily find things, identify where something begins and ends, and recognize details such as shapes and figures. Similar to color, there must be a balance with contrast. Too much light flooding a space can cause glare and be blinding whereas too little light doesn’t help anyone. So, use light and dark strategically.
Any kind of indicator that serves as a reminder and helps with completing tasks is called a cue. Cues can be visual, aural, tactile, olfactory (smell), and even gustatory (taste). And again, as with the other two C’s, only use cues when needed. Overusing cues causes them to lose force and can be overwhelming for users; think of someone giving such detailed directions that the instructions become overly complicated. But don’t underutilize cues either. Strike the right balance of cues.
Consider each of the three C principles when evaluating a living space to brainstorm possible solutions that can help with problematic areas. And as a head start, here is a list of 33 home safety and functionality tips to implement now.
- Provide soft, even lighting throughout the home to avoid both shadows and blinding glare.
- Incorporate task lighting at activity areas such as kitchen counters, desks, and tables so users can more clearly see the task at hand.
- Install extra lighting above the shower to help prevent slips and falls.
- Increase the lighting in bedroom closets and other closets in the home to make finding and replacing items easier.
- Keep lamps at the bedside to provide an illuminated pathway when overhead lights in the bedroom are off such as when going to bed or waking up (especially in the middle of the night).
- Add wall sconces or other supplemental lighting at stairs to ensure safety while descending and ascending.
- Consider using clap-on and clap-off lights to avoid having to walk to certain lighting fixtures and fiddling with hard-to-use switches.
- Place nightlights throughout all rooms and hallways in the home to guard against falls while walking in the dark.
- Install lighting at outdoor pathways, ramps, steps, and porches to keep users safe.
- Use matte finish flooring to reduce unwanted glare from reflecting off of the floor.
- Install blinds on windows to allow for control over natural light. Sunlight at dawn and dusk can create significant glare inside a home, but adjustable blinds enable users to block any unhelpful light from outside.
- Paint doors and door frames a different color than the surrounding wall to help make them easier to spot.
- Use door hardware that stands out from the color of the door to help with locating locks and doorknobs.
- Install outlet and light switch plates that are a different color than the surrounding wall to make them easy to find.
- Use flooring with a different color than the walls to help define where the floor meets the wall. Avoid any flooring that has distracting patterns and/or colors.
- Furnish each space in the home with furniture that stands out against their surroundings to ensure users safely sit down and stand up without missing the seat.
- Avoid upholstery with dizzying stripes, plaids, and other patterns. Stick with mostly solid upholstery. Also, consider placing an afghan or throw over the back of chairs to help make them more visible.
- The handrails for staircases should be a different color so that users can more easily identify and grab onto the railing.
- Prevent falls by applying adhesive strips to stair treads to increase their visibility.
- Keep floor areas clear, especially around high traffic areas like hallways, doorways, and stairways.
- Install kitchen cabinet hardware that has a different color than the cabinets to make them stand out.
- Use a dark cutting board to prepare light-colored foods and a light cutting board to chop dark-colored foods.
- Use opaque dishware that contrasts with cabinets and tables. Avoid clear glass dishware because it is harder to see.
- Set tables and eating surfaces with table settings that differ in color from the dishware to help make them more apparent.
- Label the buttons on appliances with color-coded tactile pens or stickers to make the buttons easier to identify.
- Affix adhesive labels with large, bold content descriptions onto cans, boxes, and containers in the kitchen.
- Another option is to assign a certain number of rubber bands to be wrapped around containers based on their contents. For example, place one rubber band for canned veggies and two rubber bands for canned fruits.
- Decorate the bathroom with colorful bath mats, curtains, washcloths, and towels that differ from the rest of the bathroom area so that these items can be seen easily.
- Swap the standard white toilet seat for a dark-colored one that pops.
- Use a tactile pen and/or color-coded stickers to differentiate medication bottles. Also, consider storing medications in rooms based on when they are taken, such as morning pills in the kitchen and nighttime pills in the master bathroom medicine cabinet.
- Ensure that outdoor sidewalks, driveways, and stairs are in good condition; repair cracks and level any uneven areas that could be tripping hazards.
- Keep outdoor pathways clear of bushes, debris, and low-lying tree branches.
- Spread salt on outdoor walkways, driveways, and steps to melt ice and snow during the winter. Consider asking a friend or relative to shovel the snow if necessary.
1. Turbert, David. “Causes of Low Vision.” Edited by Robert H Janigian, American Academy of Ophthalmology, 25 Jan. 2017, www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/low-vision-cause.
2. United States, Congress, National Institutes of Health. “Living With Low Vision.” Living With Low Vision, National Eye Health Education Program, 7 Feb. 2013. nei.nih.gov/sites/default/files/health-pdfs/LivingWithLowVisionBooklet.pdf.