Identifying eye conditions in older relatives


As many eye conditions have symptoms which onset gradually, they tend to go unnoticed or be dismissed by the sufferer, and many don’t seek help until a relative or authority notices the change. Since age is a contributing factor for many different eye conditions, older Australians (including our parents, grandparents, and other older relatives) are especially at risk of developing undetected eye problems.

It’s important to keep a watchful eye on those in our lives for warning signs of conditions affecting their vision, and encourage them to seek expert attention if it’s beginning to impact their lives. Read on to find out what signs of eye trouble you can watch for in your older relatives.

Identifying age-related macular degeneration (AMD)

There are two types of age-related macular degeneration – dry AMD, which develops slowly, and wet AMD, which onsets rapidly. While dry AMD is relatively common and occurs in a large number of Australians over age 50, wet AMD is a medical emergency and needs to be treated immediately to prevent permanent vision loss – if you or your relative notice a sudden onset of these symptoms, seek medical help immediately.

You may notice that your relative:

  • Can’t see in dim light – they may use a reading or night light, or have difficulty driving in the dark.
  • Doesn’t look directly at things – their central vision may be blurred, causing them to rely on peripheral vision
  • Has difficulty reading – they may read slower, have lower text comprehension, or avoid reading altogether.
  • Misses details – macular degeneration can cause patches of vision loss, which may obscure important patches of vision.
  • Is sensitive to bright lights or glare

Signs your relative may notice

These signs are not visible to an onlooker, and you will likely need to ask your older relative if they are also experiencing them.

  • Blurred or distorted vision (this is often the first symptom)
  • Patchy or missing spots – this is especially obvious when looking at a light coloured surface, such as a page or blank wall
  • Distortion in an Amsler gridclick here to download a grid and instructions for use.

Read more about dry and wet macular degeneration by clicking here.

Identifying cataracts

Cataracts are one of the most common eye conditions affecting seniors, and most Australians over age 60. As they develop slowly and are typically very small at first, many sufferers do not notice until they have severe vision loss. This makes constant monitoring and early identification especially important.

You may notice that your relative:

  • Can’t see in dim light
  • Has trouble seeing through light or glare
  • Has trouble identifying colours, especially blues or purples – cataracts can make a person’s vision take on a brown or yellowish tinge.
  • Is very sensitive to light – bright lights may cause them pain or make them unable to see at all.
  • Has a frequently changing prescription for contact lenses of glasses (updating every 6 months or less)
  • No longer needs reading glasses – cataracts can temporarily act as a stronger lens, increasing person’s short-range vision. This eventually goes away and the vision worsens again.
  • Has a cloudy cornea – this generally appears if the cataract is very developed
  • Has difficulty driving at night – they may express this verbally, be hesitant to drive, or avoid driving in low-light conditions altogether. They may also have a near-miss or accident while driving.

Your relative may notice:

  • Clouded vision
  • Halos around lights
  • Double vision – this is often in a single eye, but may extend to both

Click here to learn more about cataracts.

Identifying glaucoma

Glaucoma is the name given to a group of diseases which cause vision loss due to optic nerve damage. As many as 1 in 8 Australians aged over 80 years will develop glaucoma to a degree, and untreated glaucoma will eventually cause blindness. Since there several types of glaucoma, each having varied symptoms, your relative may not display all of the symptoms below.

You may notice that your relative:

  • Can’t see things from the side – this could include road signs or pedestrians while driving or people sitting beside them. They may need to turn their head a long way to focus.
  • Has reddened eyes – this could also be due to irritation or allergies.
  • Sees visual disturbance in low light – they may see movement that is not really occurring, or may not be able to see at all.

Your relative may notice:

  • Hazy, blurred, or distorted vision
  • Severe pain in the eyes, (often accompanied with nausea and vomiting) – this symptom indicates a dangerous form of glaucoma and needs immediate treatment to avoid permanent vision loss.

Identifying diabetic retinopathy

People with any type of diabetes (including gestational diabetes) can develop diabetic retinopathy, which causes damage and leaking to the blood vessels present in the retina.

You may notice that your relative:

  • Can’t recognise colours
  • Struggles with details – they may have trouble reading, threading a needle, or doing other activities which involve using small objects.
  • Has difficulty driving – they make express this verbally, avoid driving, or have been involved in an accident.

Your relative may notice:

  • Fluctuating vision
  • Floaters or flashes

Read more about diabetic retinopathy here.

Identifying dry-eye syndrome

Dry eye syndrome is common in all age groups, especially in Australians over 50 and post-menopausal women. Although it generally doesn’t lead to long-term damage, it can be irritating uncomfortable. Many sufferers dismiss it as allergies.

You may notice that your relative:

  • Has reddened, irritated eyes
  • Is sensitive to light
  • Has trouble wearing contact lenses – they may mention this in conversation
  • Has mucus in or around their eyes – this can also be a sign of conjunctivitis or an eye infection
  • Can’t focus for a long period of time – they may need to look away from a screen or book often due to eye fatigue

Your relative may notice:

  • A burning, scratching, or stinging sensation in their eyes
  • Tired eyes
  • Blurred vision
  • A feeling of something being ‘in’ the eye, like an eyelash or piece of grit

Identifying retinal detachment

Retinal detachment usually doesn’t cause any pain in the sufferer. It occurs when the retina pulls away from the back wall of the eye, impacting its function and reducing its effectiveness. It usually occurs in people aged 40-70 years, but can happen in other age groups due to eye trauma.

You may notice that your relative:

  • Has receding peripheral vision – They may not see signs or pedestrians while driving, or may not be able to dodge an incoming object. This generally develops over a long period of time
  • Doesn’t have a normal range of vision – they may not see objects approaching from one side, or ask people to stand in a certain place when talking to them.

Your relative may notice:

  • Floaters or flecks in their vision
  • Flashes of light
  • Blurred vision
  • A shadow in their vision – this may obscure a large section of their vision or just a small part.

For more information

Many changes in vision can be signs of developing or established eye conditions, especially in older Australians, and any unexpected symptoms need to be assessed by a professional. Speak to your General Practitioner for a referral to Westside Eye Clinic if you suspect you or someone close to you may have an eye condition.

If you notice that your vision is decreasing, it’s important to seek qualified medical help as soon as possible to prevent lasting damage. Your vision is one of your most important assets, and there’s no reason to let it disappear over a preventable or treatable cause.

Specialist Ophthalmologist Dr Joseph Park offers the latest treatments for a wide range of optical issues from his Brisbane’s Westside Eye Clinic. Call us on 07 3715 5555 to discuss conditions affecting you or your loved ones.

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