Sight loss in older age: what is the impact on patients’ cost of living?

cost of sight loss in old ageThe cost of living for a pensioner with severe visual impairment is 73% higher than for a pensioner whose sight is unaffected. When a person loses their sight they need additional support to maintain their living standards, which increases their everyday costs significantly.

The above statistic is from a recently published report by sight-loss charity Thomas Pocklington Trust. In the report, Loss of sight  and Minimum Income Standards, researchers undertook group discussions with visually impaired people in order to identify their additional needs and the cost of them.

The difference in cost of living for visually impaired people was stark. To reach a “minimum acceptable standard of living” a sight-impaired pensioner spent £77.82 more per week than a person of working age without sight loss; a severely sight-impaired pensioner spent £136.61 more.

Additional costs for the visually impaired

Care and support in the home made up 50% of the extra costs incurred by a visually impaired pensioner. This included additional items such as help with cleaning, food preparation, washing and dressing, or dealing with paperwork.

Transport can also be a significant cost for the visually impaired. This group is not able to drive, and public transport can often be inaccessible to them, so they will spend money on taxis. Developing sight loss in older age also means pensioners are more likely to have lower mobility. This increases the need for taxis in place of public transport or walking.

Extra help from carers, friends and relatives also adds up. A visually impaired pensioner may employ a carer to help them with everyday activities, for example.

Food and drink costs can also be higher. A visually impaired person may struggle to prepare food, so might rely on expensive ready meals. They also require foods to be pre-prepared, like pre-cut vegetables or ready-made sauces, so they can cook a meal easily. This can be exacerbated in older age too, where fatigue, joint pain or coordination could be a factor.

Other small costs arise from the need for adaptations to be made. Items like easy to read labels, talking clocks, grab rails, canes and special glasses are all additional costs for the visually impaired.

The study concludes that the greatest cost comes from the need for human help, in the form of employed carers, friends or relatives. This represents a significant additional cost that those without visual impairment simply don’t have to bear.

The challenges for sight-impaired pensioners

The report showed those who lost their sight at a young age were able to adapt better compared with older people. A younger person may need fewer adaptations to maintain independence, but a pensioner is reliant on more help.

The severely sight-impaired pensioners in the study spent the most on support in the home – around five hours per week. This was often due to the double impact of sight loss and reduced mobility. Jobs like heavy lifting, shopping or deep cleaning could be done by a working-age person with sight loss but not an older person.

An overall deterioration in health can be challenging for older people compared with people of working age. A young person with sight loss is more likely to have stable health which is not always the case in older age. An older person is likely to be living with other health conditions which make acquiring sight loss more difficult.

What kind of methodology was used?

The study used the Minimum Income Standard (MIS) methodology, to assess the extra costs incurred by visually impaired people. This standard methodology is used in the UK to report how much a household needs in order to be able to afford an acceptable standard of living.

The MIS approach calculates basic needs but also what people need to participate in society and maintain a certain quality of life. These extra needs include the ability to socialise and undertake leisure activities.

This study is important because it considers a visually impaired person’s basic needs, like food and heating, along with those required to maintain independence and prevent isolation.

“This research is vital because it reveals the costs involved in order for visually impaired people to participate in society – not only to survive but to thrive. It is crucial that decisions about what is needed are not dictated by those with no experience of sight loss – they must be based on what people with sight loss themselves believe to be important.”

Pamela Lacy, Research Manager at the Thomas Pocklington Trust

The research is now in its second phase, where researchers will delve deeper into how the income of visually impaired people compares with MIS budgets. The study will also find out how those with limited incomes adapt to sight loss.

The importance of screening to prevent avoidable blindness

The RNIB states that the levels of avoidable sight loss in the UK are ‘unacceptably high’ estimating that around half of all loss of sight is preventable.

One in five people aged 75 or over are living with sight loss, and one in two over the age of 90 have sight loss. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of sight loss, with glaucoma, cataracts and diabetic retinopathy being significant causes too.

Most of these conditions can be diagnosed with simple screening tests, like those provided by our Macular Pigment Screener (for AMD) or the Henson 9000 (for glaucoma). AMD and glaucoma are common eye conditions in the over 50s, so early screening is key to preventing avoidable blindness. Conditions like age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma are very treatable in their early forms.

Living with sight loss in older age presents many challenges, physically, mentally and fiscally. By encouraging the over 50s to have regular sight tests we can remove the financial burdens many visually impaired pensioners face today.

Learn more about the importance of early screening for glaucoma by downloading our free whitepaper, or read more about the modifiable risk factors for AMD.