Pilot scheme helps elderly with vision loss at home

Temasek Foundation Cares injects $1.3m into initiative to help these seniors live more safely

A three-year initiative is under way to help thousands of elderly people with vision problems live independently and safely at home.

Temasek Foundation Cares - a philanthropic arm of investment company Temasek - has committed $1.3 million to the Senior EyE Rehabilitation (Seer) programme.

It is expected to benefit 2,240 people aged 50 or above who have partial vision loss that cannot be corrected by surgery or medication.

The risk of such conditions often increases with age. For instance, about 3 per cent of people over 50 here have glaucoma, and the rate is 10 per cent to 12 per cent for those over 70. As the number of elderly people in Singapore increases, hospitals are handling more cases of seniors with poor vision.

The Seer model focuses on community care - occupational therapists (OTs) from hospitals will train community OTs from welfare groups in low vision rehabilitation skills. Community OTs will then visit patients in their homes up to four times, teaching them how to function and move about safely at home despite their low vision.

Patients must have a monthly per capita income of no more than $2,600 to be eligible and be referred by participating hospitals.

Details of the three-year pilot scheme were revealed ahead of World Sight Day today. The scheme started in July and referrals were stepped up last month. Organisers hope other groups will replicate the model to help more seniors if it is successful.

Senior occupational therapist Chen Xuanyu shows housewife Joy Leong how to cook food and boil water more safely. Madam Leong has total vision loss in one eye and partial vision in the other.
Senior occupational therapist Chen Xuanyu shows housewife Joy Leong how to cook food and boil water more safely. Madam Leong has total vision loss in one eye and partial vision in the other. ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Currently, some hospitals offer occupational therapy for people with poor vision. This service is also offered in patients' homes if needed but can cost more than $100 per visit, whereas the Seer initiative provides it free of charge.

There are also only three OTs who have or are pursuing a graduate certificate in low vision rehabilitation, according to Ms Chen Xuanyu, a senior OT at the National University Hospital (NUH). Under the Seer initiative, 30 community OTs will be trained.

A Temasek Foundation Cares spokesman told The Straits Times: "By equipping the elderly with vital skills such as safety, orientation and mobility within the home, they can age in place and enjoy greater quality of life in their silver years.

"The model involves many partners in the acute and community care settings working together, so care is given early and patients can successfully transition from the point of diagnosis, in acute hospitals, to the home and community."

The Seer initiative is managed by the Agency for Integrated Care (AIC). Partners include NUH, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, the Singapore National Eye Centre and welfare groups such as AWWA and Touch Community Services.

Social workers also have a role to play in Seer. An AIC spokesman said: "At times, patients may not be able to accept their loss of vision. The social worker can then support them in managing the psychosocial needs."

For now, until more community therapists are trained, OTs from hospitals are visiting some beneficiaries of the Seer initiative at home.

At a session on Tuesday, Ms Chen from NUH taught housewife Joy Leong, 74, how to cook food and boil water more safely. Madam Leong has retinitis pigmentosa, which has led to total loss of vision in her right eye and partial vision in her left eye.

Ms Chen taught Madam Leong how to use an induction stove, which is safer as there are no open flames that she could accidentally touch.

Ms Chen added tactile markers on key buttons and in an area between the button panel and the cooktop to help Madam Leong distinguish between the two sections.

She also suggested that Madam Leong use a plastic kettle to boil water instead of a large metal one.

Madam Leong said in Mandarin: "Life has to go on, so it's good to be able to do such activities at home by myself and in a safer manner."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2016, with the headline 'Pilot scheme helps elderly with vision loss at home'. Print Edition | Subscribe