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Assisting Visually Impaired Older Adults (with transcript)

Gina March has been the Director of Community Relations at the Mary Culver Home for Visually Impaired Women in Kirkwood, Missouri since January of 2019. Before joining the staff, she served on their board of directors for over seven years and was an active volunteer. In addition, her mother was a resident at the Home in 2012. Before coming to the Home, Gina was the Executive Director of the Brentwood Chamber of Commerce.



Frank Sampson: Welcome to Boomers Today, I’m your host Frank Sampson, and of course each week we bring you important and useful information on issues facing Baby Boomers, their parents, and other loved ones. I just want to really thank everybody for all their support.

Today we have with us Gina March, who has been the director of community relations at the Mary Culver Home for Visually Impaired Women in Kirkwood, Missouri since January of 2019. Before joining the staff, she served on the board of directors for over seven years and was an active volunteer. In addition, her mother was a resident at the home in 2012. Before coming to the home, Gina was the executive director of the Brentwood Chamber of Commerce.

Gina, welcome to Boomers Today, thank you so much for joining us.


Gina March:      Well, thank you, Frank, I appreciate being on the call.


Frank:               Okay, so you really specialize in those that are elderly and visually impaired. Tell us a little bit about how you got into this type of work?


Gina:                Well, sure. Well, first let me tell you a little history about the Mary Culver Home. The Mary Culver Home has been around for 154 years. And it’s been in St. Louis the whole time. It started out as a home called The Blind Girls Home. It was founded by a woman named Mary Culver and her husband Lucius. Lucius owned the Majestic Stove Company in St. Louis and he and his wife were big philanthropists. And Mary Culver was a part of the St. Louis Christian Women’s Association and met these six girls who had graduated from the Missouri School for the Blind, which still operates, and which was a residential program to help young kids deal with their blindness. It was like a little school for them. And there were these six girls who graduated who did not have families to go back to and they needed a place to live.

They were searching for a home while living in the attic of a prominent St. Louis artist at the time. Mary Culver went to his home, I don’t know if it was by design or by serendipity or whatever, but she met these girls and really fell in love with them and felt for their need. She and her husband ended up donating a lot of money to build a big home here in downtown St. Louis. And about 100 years later, they under grew the home because at the time, it was a home that really served younger women. And as the population changed, there were fewer and fewer young women who needed a place to live, but there were more elderly women.

So it ended up the house in downtown St. Louis was much too large, and so in about 1964, ’65 they had raised enough money to have a new home built in Kirkwood, Missouri, which is still St. Louis, it’s just a suburb.

It was a cool, one-story, prairie style design house that was built just for visually impaired women. We’ve been there even since. As far as I know, we’re the only ones in the country who have a facility like this.


Frank:               Yeah, I’ll tell you, you might be. I have probably visited upwards of close to a thousand type locations around the country, and I’ve never seen one that specialize in visually impaired, so you very well may be.

So tell me Gina, is that how you kind of got into it in your workings at Mary Culver, or were you involved with the visually impaired prior to that?


Gina:                Actually, I wasn’t. I was working at the Kirkwood Des Peres Chamber of Commerce, which is just about two blocks away from where I’m sitting today. And someone who the president of their board of directors approached me and she said, “Would you ever consider joining our board?” She just had a lot of respect for me and thought I would be a good volunteer. I met the other board members, decided to join them, that’s how I became familiar with the home. It just so happened that a few months after I had joined the board was when my mother fell and broke her hip. She was 85 at the time. And she needed to go somewhere for respite.

By the way, my mother is not visually impaired. I mean, she wore glasses but she’s 85. But I happened to be speaking with someone here at the Mary Culver Home and they said, “Well, even though she’s not visually impaired, she could stay here for respite,” which if people don’t know what that is, it means just a short term stay, like a month or so. I loved this place because I’m here all the time as a board member, as a volunteer, and so we had her moved here. And I’ve got to say, the very first night we were here the people in the dining room were already calling her Ms. Virginia, everyone was treating her like she was a special human being. Where at the place she was at before … it was like she was nothing.

So that’s really how I got involved. I had no involvement at all before that with people who are visually impaired, but now that I’ve been here and doing this work. I was on the board for like seven or eight years, so I knew a lot about this place and what a sweet place it was before I even got involved.


Frank:               Yeah, so certainly there’s a lot of challenges in just getting older. But to add on top of it those that have visual impairment, what have you learned in working with the elderly and really kind of understanding some of those challenges?


Gina:                Well, one thing I can tell you for sure is beyond any of the physical stuff that’s the challenge, what has really struck me is the emotional and mental challenges that come with this. I mean, when you think about it, when you lose your sight, that is a very, very big loss. As a matter of fact, I read that becoming blind is in the top four worst things that could happen to you. And that was part of a research study by Vision and Ophthalmology, a 2017 survey to Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, it was their survey. So that’s an awful, awful thing to lose is your sight. I mean, when you think about all the things that you just take for granted that you’re able to do because you can see, and then not to have that ability anymore, how vulnerable you become.

And when you add onto it that most of the people that we work with are in their 70s, 80s, 90s, by that time you’re usually relying on a cane, or a walker, or a wheelchair. Very often you have also lost a lot of your hearing ability. And then you come to a place because you really can’t take care of yourself anymore, and you’re at a place where you’re relying on really strangers, at least in the beginning, strangers-

Who many oftentimes are in their 20s or 30s, they’re caregivers who aren’t typically really well paid. And now you’re counting on them for your food, walking you from your room to any other place you want to go, just counting on them that they’re going to take care of you. What a vulnerable experience that is to live with every single day.


Frank:               Right, right.


Gina:                So you can imagine how sad and depressing that can be, to know that you’re never going to have your sight and autonomy back.


Frank:               Are there signs to kind of recognize vision loss? I mean, the people who have experienced that and they haven’t had vision loss their entire life and it happens gradually. So is it a gradual thing where they kind of don’t notice it happening, or what are some of the signs?


Gina:                Well, when you get older there are things like cataracts, and that builds up over time. There’s glaucoma, and that also is a more gradual loss. Macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and then one that’s not quite as common but we see a lot of it here is retinitis pigmentosa. Most of the women that at least come to the home, and I would say certainly with most elderly people, have experience vision loss that comes on gradually. A lot of it can be at least slowed down.

What you, as a listener, would want to pay attention to in your own setting, your own family surroundings, are has your loved one begun to sort of bump into things? Do they move hesitantly or walk closer to the wall than they used to? Do they grope for things or touch them in an uncertain way where they didn’t before? Do they squint or tilt their head to see? Do they ask for more lighting than they used to be able to read a book or even watch television? Do they hold books or other things, other reading materials, close to their face? Do they drop their food maybe off their fork when they’re eating? Do they have trouble recognizing people’s faces? So those are all things that anyone who knows a person fairly well can start to pick up on and ask them if they’re starting to not be able to see as well.


Frank:               Gina, great information, maybe we could talk a little bit as far as your experience in working with visually impaired. I know you’re mainly working with visually impaired women, but just some tips maybe you have, certainly just having conversations, or walking, or all of that. So maybe give us some tips in your experience.


Gina:                Absolutely, and these are so, so simple, it’s just things that most people may not think about. For instance, as you walk up to a person who is visually impaired, announce your presence. Softly announce your presence, don’t scare them by waiting until you’re right up against them and go, “Hey, it’s Gina.” Like when I’m here at work and I visit with the ladies every day just to say hi, as I get near them I very softly touch their shoulder and go, “Hi Mary, it’s Gina,” and I’m not startling them.

Always give your name because I wouldn’t rely on them to recognize your voice. Speak directly to her, like if she’s with her daughter or something that’s come to see her today, don’t just talk to the daughter, don’t ignore her just because she’s blind, talk directly to her. And when you speak directly to her face, the sound gets directed right toward her. That way just because the person is blind, if you’re speaking off to your side, she can actually tell that even though she can’t see. If she can still hear, she can hear that.

And it is okay to use words like, “I’ll see you later,” “Hey, it was great seeing you today,” those words are part of natural conversation, so don’t stumble over words like that, it’s not offensive to anybody. And don’t shout. Being blind does not necessarily mean that that person can’t hear as well.

When you’re entering or leaving a room where a visually impaired person is, when you walk into the room, once again, say something to signal your presence. Let that person know that you’re leaving, so that person doesn’t continue a conversation thinking that you’re there. I’ve seen that before here, and gosh, it’s embarrassing for the resident, and it’s just kind of disrespectful. And don’t ever leave someone standing alone in the middle of a room. If you’re going to leave, you make sure that that person is led to something solid that they may have contact with, like a table or chair.

When walking with that person, always offer your arm, and then you can gently place that person’s hand on your forearm so you can gently walk with that person. And don’t try to grab them and steer them around because that’s very disorienting for that person and same goes with their cane, or if the person has a seeing eye dog, don’t grab the dog’s harness.

And then audibly guide her on the direction that she needs to walk. For instance yesterday I was walking one of our residents to her room and she uses a walker. As we’re walking and I know she needs to turn right to go down her hall, I would say, “Okay, Marian, now let’s steer a little to the right,” even though I’ve got my hand on hers and her walker, I still tell her which way she needs to steer instead of just trying to turn her myself.

And if we’re going to approach a narrow space, like there’s people in the way, or just it’s a narrow hall, I move my arm, my guiding arm behind me so she can step back a little and still hang onto me, but follow me right behind me. And of course, if we’re at a curb or at the beginning of a flight of steps, you want to let that person know that that’s what we’re beginning to approach, let them know if we’re going to be going up or down. And then just prepare them for how much of a step it’s going to be. Or if I say, “Hey, we need to move a little bit to the right,” I will say, “We’re probably going to move about three feet to our right,” so she has an idea of where she’s going to be going.


Frank:               Right, right.


Gina:                So hopefully those are some things that are helpful.


Frank:               No, that’s great. As you know, as people age, even if they don’t have any type of vision issues, sometimes they’re going to need assistance, it could be with what we call, of course, activities of daily living, so for example, showering. So somebody who is visually impaired or blind and they do need help with some of the activities of daily living, let’s say like bathing, showering, any suggestions you can give relative to that?


Gina:                Well here at the Mary Culver Home all our residents are assisted by CNAs to shower, because we don’t want to take that risk of them doing it on their own. Guiding a person to the shower, having a seat in the shower, of course for them to sit, even offering then a handheld shower handle kind of thing to use are probably the best ways you can help them.


Frank:               Got it, got it. Great. Now we only have a couple minutes left, but we had an opportunity to chat before our interview here, and you have a podcast as well, so maybe why don’t you share with our listeners a little bit about your podcast. I always want to promote others because we help educate people and so tell us a little bit about that and if somebody wanted to learn more about Mary Culver Home how they could learn more about that as well.


Gina:                Oh, well thanks, and thanks for the plug for my podcast. It’s called The Aging Answers Show. It started out as a radio show and now we’ve turned them all into podcasts. It is on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, and a few other small ones. But yeah, it’s called Aging Answers Show, and we’ve done around 50 episodes now. Each episode covers I’m sure a lot of the same topics that you do. I just try to interview anyone that offers some kind of service that would be helpful for seniors, just to make their lives a little bit easier.

And then about the Mary Culver Home, like I mentioned, we’ve been around 154 years. We only have room for 27 ladies, and it’s always been just for women. And they get very, very great care. Our staffing ratio is only seven residents to one caregiver, so they get a lot of extra attention. I think the average is somewhere between 15 and 20 residents to a caregiver in most places.


Frank:               Okay.


Gina:                We have a small board of directors that are all here in the Kirkwood area, so the buck stops here when it comes to any decisions that are made about care. So it’s a sweet little place, we’re in a very residential, tree surrounded community here, a lot of people who drive up and down our street don’t even know we’re here because it just looks like someone’s nice big house that sits back in the trees.

Frank:               Great, great. Well Gina, thank you so much for joining us on Boomers Today, I really appreciate it.


Gina:                Well thank you, Frank, I appreciate the opportunity.


Frank:               Yeah, and I want to thank everybody out there for joining us as well on Boomers Today. Just be safe out there and we’ll talk to you all real soon. Thanks a lot.



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