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Organizing the New York City Coalition on Aging and Vision
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Organizing the New York City Coalition on Aging and Vision

Alberta L. Orr, MSW, Coordinator, New York City Coalition on Aging and Vision

June 2009


As New Yorkers age dramatically, increasing numbers experience sensory – vision and hearing – and physical disabilities as a result of many causes. In the physical disability arena, many convening groups include professional and consumer advocates, especially many older people, and exist to advocate for access to the physical environment. Various service and advocacy groups exist in the hearing impaired arena because there are various forms of hearing loss requiring different needs. Comprised of New York City vision rehabilitation services, agencies in the aging field as well of those in the health care arena, the idea for the formation of the New York City Coalition on Aging and Vision was about educating direct service providers about the availability of the five private vision rehabilitation agencies1 and the services they had to offer older people who are visually impaired. The focus was on how to know when to make a referral to these agencies as far too often, professionals in aging and even the health care arena do not know where to turn for help. Older consumers frequently think that vision loss is a part of the normal aging process and do not seek help; family members also do not know where to turn. So many older people are experiencing so many other comorbidities, that vision often seems minor in comparison. In a way, vision rehabilitation services are one of the best kept secrets in town.

1. The five private vision rehabilitation agencies are: Catholic Guild for the Blind, Helen Keller Services for the Blind, Lighthouse International, The Jewish Guild for the Blind, and VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

In the summer of 2007 – under the direction of the Aging In New York Fund, with support from the NYC Department for the Aging and funding from the Reader’s Digest Partner for Sight Foundation, The New York Community Trust and Allene Reuss Memorial Trust – the five private agencies and the Coalition Project Director (Mebane Powell), sat down at what was the initial formation of the coalition. They brainstormed what professionals needed to know and what additional services NYC older persons needed to have. Professionals needed training – no question.

The then-small Coalition strategized on who else they needed to reach out to in the aging and health care networks and lend additional credibility to the coalition. The coalition grew to include: American Diabetes Association, Hunter College, Isabella Geriatric Center, NYS Home Care Association; NYS Occupational Therapy Association, Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped, SUNY College of Optometry.

The first meeting of the full Coalition was in November 2007 where the Coalition decided to convene a full day symposium for service providers outside the vision field. By pulling in all the resources and expertise of the Coalition members and their contacts, the symposium, Aging Gracefully with Changing Vision, was held in June 2008. Attended by 238 professionals, the symposium offered six presentations during the morning plenary and six breakout groups, each repeated twice in the afternoon. The word of the day was “refer” – whatever you learned about the vision-related services available: refer, refer, refer. A unified form was distributed so that all referrals would come to the Project Director who would distribute the referrals to the 5 agencies based on the services they provide.

Each agency that attended the symposium was invited to have a two-hour community outreach training at their facility. The Project Coordinator (the author) developed a six module curriculum which was reviewed and had input from a core of coalition members. Coalition trainings have been taking place since the late fall by a team consisting of either the Project Director or the Project Coordinator and a representative from two of the other rehabilitation agencies.

A completely unique aspect of the Coalition efforts is addressing the rehabilitation needs of older limited-English speaking consumers who sometimes had to be turned away because there was not a staff member who spoke their language. In order to fill this service gap, an interpreter project was developed and an interpreter bank was created. To date the project is able to provide interpreter services between the older visually impaired person and the vision rehabilitation professional in the following languages: Spanish, Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, Haitian Creole, Korean, and Arabic.

With the development of the Coalition, these activities bring together service providers from so many professional arenas about age-related vision loss which would otherwise not be possible and more older people are being referred and have access to essential services. The Coalition is helping vision loss reach the priorities of the aging agenda and continues to brainstorm about its composition and its next projects and hope for further growth and development.

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