A Blessing Unveiled

Helen Licht gracefully ushers me into her showpiece studio apartment at Marjorie P. Lee, a retirement community in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood. At 92, she is dressed impeccably in a red sweater and elegant pearl necklace; her white hair is styled to perfection. It is only when I take a second glance at her warm alabaster-toned face that I remember what I’ve been told: she is blind.

“All my life I was always reading, sometimes two or three books a week,” Helen says. “I read so much, maybe I used my vision all up,” she jests. The facts are less poetic – fourteen years ago, cases of macular degeneration and glaucoma led to her blindness. Yet instead of being defeated by the life-altering loss, Helen has approached sightlessness with a take-charge attitude. “I decided to start a support group for people with sight impairment here where I live,” she explains. “I know we can help each other.”

When her husband died, Helen down-sized to her present studio apartment in the assisted living section of the retirement center. Her friend, Linda, helped her with the move: “The movers thought Aunt Helen was in her 60s,” she says. “The move made me very aware of the essence of Aunt Helen’s character: she accepts her situation, lets go, and moves on.”

No more vividly is this nature exhibited than in Helen’s decision to begin knitting again after having stopped the activity when she became blind. “Aunt Helen used to knit complicated things -- always exquisitely and perfectly,” Linda explains. “Now when she knits it isn’t as elaborate, and when she drops a stitch she has to wait for help from a friend, but she can accept the change and go forward.”

Helen uses any adaptation necessary to make her self-sufficient. In the dining room she is served with a sectioned plate to make her meal easier to eat. Her radio has been retrofitted so she can work the controls (she loves listening to NPR and eschews TV).

Through her reading machine she has been able to view photographs and text when greatly enlarged. Her phone is equipped with a system, supplied by the
Association for the Blind, that allows her to simply dial 411 to learn the name and location of the caller. And her latest pursuit is taking “white cane” lessons from the Association to increase her independence.

Although Helen says she is ready to die anytime – she believes in eternal life and wants to be reunited with her husband – she continues to provide herself with purpose and goals. Knitting matters to her. She still loves classical music and books and ravenously listens to books-on-tape, including the entire Harry Potter series. She goes shopping and out to eat weekly and regularly attends church. She has plans to start using the fitness center again.

And then there is the Low Vision Support Group that she started at the retirement home. She remembers her grandmother’s teachings – “Cast your bread on the water, and it’ll come back many-fold” – and feels a sense of fulfillment in putting her words into practice.

The support group numbers nineteen. On the second Thursday of each month they meet for mutual support and information. At some meetings, high tech solutions for the sightless are presented, such as a demo of a reading machine. Helen has also lined up speakers offering low tech solutions to problems: coping mechanisms such as using the forefinger as a toothbrush and folding currency in ways so as to be able to distinguish a bill of one denomination from another.

Helen believes that losing her sight has kept her mental faculties sharp. “Maybe it is a blessing so that I can help others,” she ponders.

[Sadly, Helen died in September of 2010.]

Helen Licht