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Sensory Loss

In this education module, we review sensory changes (vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch). While aging can affect all the senses, usually hearing and vision are most affected. A decline in senses can decrease quality of life by preventing us from enjoying activities and communicating with and staying involved with people, which ultimately can lead to isolation.

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Be sure and check out our blog, titled, Driving Safety Tips for Seniors [15].

Vision loss  

Over 4.2 million Americans aged 40 years and older are legally blind or have decreased/low vision. The leading causes of blindness and low vision in the United States are primarily age-related eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, cataract, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma. Other common eye disorders include amblyopia and strabismus.

Abnormal, Non-Emergency – Any changes in the appearance of your eyes or vision should be investigated further. Some examples include:

  • Unusual trouble adjusting to dark rooms
  • Difficulty focusing on near or distant objects
  • Squinting or blinking because of unusual sensitivity to light or glare
  • Change in color of iris
  • Red-rimmed, encrusted or swollen lids
  • Recurrent pain in or around eyes
  • Double vision
  • Dark spot at the center of viewing
  • Lines and edges appear distorted or wavy
  • Excess tearing or “watery eyes”
  • Dry eyes with itching or burning
  • Seeing spots, ghost-like images

Emergency – Indications of potentially serious problems that might require emergency medical attention

  • Sudden loss of vision in one eye
  • Sudden hazy or blurred vision
  • Flashes of light or black spots
  • Halos or rainbows around light
  • Curtain-like blotting out of vision
  • Loss of peripheral (side) vision

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Common Eye Disorders

Common age-related eye disorders include:

Helpful Links and articles:

Glaucoma

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that can cause vision loss and blindness by damaging a nerve in the back of your eye called the optic nerve, the health of which is vital for good vision. The damage is often caused by an abnormally high pressure in your eye. Symptoms start so slowly that you may not notice them. The only way to find out if you have glaucoma is to get a comprehensive dilated eye exam. While there is no cure for glaucoma, early treatment can often stop the damage and protect your vision. 

Symptoms include

Glaucoma Risk Factors

Because chronic forms of glaucoma can destroy vision before any signs or symptoms are apparent, be aware of these risk factors:

Prevention and management 

Self-care steps can help you detect glaucoma in its early stages, which is important in preventing vision loss or slowing its progress.

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Macular Degeneration

There is currently no known cure for Macular Degeneration. Risk can be reduced and possibly slow the progression once diagnosed. For example, one can pursue lifestyle changes like Food and Recipes Good for Macular Degeneration, exercise, avoiding smoking, and protecting your eyes from ultraviolet light, which aggravates Macular Degeneration.

Symptoms of Macular Degeneration

Sometimes only one eye loses vision while the other eye continues to see well for many years. Condition may be hardly noticeable in its early stage. When both eyes are affected, reading and close up work can become difficult 

Risk Factors

The biggest risk factor for Macular Degeneration is age; the disease is most likely to occur in those 55 and older. Other risk factors include:

Helpful Links 

Diabetic Retinopathy 

Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a common complication of diabetes. It is the leading cause of blindness in American adults and a significant cause of vision problems in the older adult population. The prevalence of diabetic retinopathy rises with increasing duration of diabetes. However, significant diabetic retinopathy may be observed in the elderly at the time of diagnosis or during the first few years of diabetes.

It is characterized by progressive damage to the blood vessels of the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye that is necessary for good vision. 

The longer a person has diabetes the greater his/her chances of developing retinopathy. Regular eye examinations are necessary. The risks of DR are reduced through disease management that includes good control of blood sugar, blood pressure, and lipid abnormalities.

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Blepharitis

Blepharitis is an inflammation of the eyelids in which they become red, irritated and itchy with dandruff-like scales that form on the eyelashes. It is a common eye disorder caused by either bacteria or a skin condition, such as dandruff of the scalp or rosacea. Symptoms include: 

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Recommended Changes in the Home – Vision Issues

Simple tasks around the house can become dangerous for those experiencing vision loss. Here are some suggested home modifications  

Assistive Devices for Vision Loss

Written materials

Helpful links:

Hearing Loss

Hearing loss can occur in one or both ears and range from mild to profound. Some lose clarity more than volume. For some, high-pitched sounds (including women’s voices) become fuzzy or it becomes difficult to distinguish one consonant from another. 

Hearing loss that occurs gradually as you age (presbycusis) is common. About one-third of people in the United States between the ages of 65 and 75 have some degree of hearing loss. For those older than 75, that number is approximately 1 in 2. 

Hearing loss is defined as one of three types:

Signs and Symptoms Suggesting Hearing Loss

Impact of Hearing Loss

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Hearing Aids

Hearing aids can’t restore normal hearing. They can improve your hearing by amplifying sounds that you’ve had trouble hearing. Unfortunately few people who need hearing aids wear them due to perceived stigma, cost, or impatience. 

Period of Adjustment for Hearing Aids

Assistive devices for Hearing

Helpful links:

Tips for Making Conversations Easier

When you know about a hearing impairment: 

On the Telephone

Changes in taste, smell, and touch

Smell, taste, and sensitivity to touch all change as we age. Loss of taste and smell can have a significant impact on quality of life, often leading to decreased appetite and poor nutrition. Sometimes loss of taste and smell contributes to depression. Loss of taste and smell also might tempt the use excess salt or sugar on food to enhance the taste — which could be a problem with high blood pressure or diabetes.

Taste

Some loss of taste and smell is natural with aging, especially after age 60.

Signs of loss of taste include complaints about food not tasting right and using excessive seasoning, especially salt. Loss of the sense of smell may interfere with the sense of taste which can cause reduced or increased appetite.

Factors that can contribute to loss of taste and smell:

If necessary, a doctor might recommend consulting an allergist, an ear, nose and throat specialist (otolaryngologist), a neurologist, or other specialist.

Suggest options:

Smell

As you get older, your sense of smell may fade. Your sense of smell is closely related to your sense of taste. When you can’t smell, food may taste bland. You may even lose interest in eating.

Smell is an important sense. Certain smells help us recall memories. Other smells, like smoke from a fire, alert us to danger. When your care receiver can no longer smell things they enjoy, like morning coffee or spring flowers, life may seem dull.

If someone is experiencing a loss of taste and smell, consult a doctor. Although age-related taste and smell cannot be reversed, some causes of impaired taste and smell are treatable. Quitting smoking can help restore the sense of smell. A doctor might adjust medications if they’re contributing to the problem. Many nasal and sinus conditions and dental problems can be treated as well. 

Touch

If your care receiver avoids touching or being touched, is unable to sense pain or overly sensitive to touch or pressure, or has no response to being touched they may be experiencing a loss of this sense. 

Compensating and Accommodating for Sensory Loss

Resources for Caregivers

Use resources such as Area Agency on Aging [40] (AAA). Types of assistance provided by AAAs:

Assistance available through AAAs for persons age 60 and older may include:

Be sure to check out our Resource Directory [41]FAQ [42], and Educational Events Calendar [43] for more great information! Permission is granted to duplicate any and all parts of this page to use in education programs supporting family members caring for elders. 

Reviewed March 2022

We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
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