Berkshires' first low-vision care center opens at Allendale Shopping Center
PITTSFIELD — For Berkshire residents coping with a decreasing loss of sight, the only way to assess their condition locally has been through a mobile eye clinic, and that service was available only to the legally blind.
Anyone else seeking an examination had to travel to either Holyoke or Springfield. Considering that 80 percent of the people who lose their sight are over the age of 70, traveling to the Pioneer Valley was often a difficult, or nearly impossible, option.
That's an even bigger problem in the Berkshires, where 20 percent of the population is over the age of 65.
Now there's a better way.
The Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired recently opened Berkshire County's first low-vision center at Optical Care Associates in the Allendale Shopping Center on Cheshire Road.
Optometrist Charles Mandel, who is associated with the MABVI, provides specialized examinations for people coping with vision loss.
A functional low-vision assessment is different than a regular eye exam. It helps people who are coping with vision loss to better understand the extent of their remaining vision, and how best to maximize it in order to live full lives and remain as independent as possible.
"Low vision is a very specialized service, and there have been very few providers statewide," only 14 throughout Massachusetts, said MABVI Statewide Director Shaun Kinsella. "Berkshire County is often one of the last places in the state to get any kinds of services because it's the furthest from Boston.
"It's not like it was impossible to get low-vision exams" in the Berkshires, Kinsella said. "But people need these exams whether they're legally blind or not."
Kinsella realized there was a need for low-vision services in the Berkshires because the county was part of his territory when he performed a three-year stint working for the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He joined MABVI two years ago.
"I was aware that Berkshire County had gotten left out," he said. "I made it my mission to make sure we had something in Berkshire County. Hopefully, we'll have a second one very soon."
According to Kinsella, vision loss is measured by spectrums. Very few people have no vision at all, he said, but many suffer areas of loss as they age. Those with macular degeneration lose the ability to see straight ahead, but retain their peripheral vision. People suffering with glaucoma lose their peripheral vision but can still see in front of them, although "it's like looking down a tunnel," Kinsella said.
"Low vision falls below the threshold of legal blindness," Kinsella said. "Your functional vision is affected and prevents you from doing certain tasks the way you normally would."
Patients who receive low vision examinations may receive a referral for in-home vision rehabilitation from one of MABVI's occupational therapists, who will travel to a patient's home to help them learn how to use their remaining vision in their own environment.
They may also be recommended the use of assistive technology, which could include a magnifier, an iPad, or a reading machine. MABVI occupational therapists will train individuals to use these technologies.
According to Kinsella, health insurance coverage determines whether individuals are required to obtain a referral from a primary care physician to receive a low vision examination. But he said MABVI will provide referrals for those who can't obtain them.
MediCare, MassHealth and most private insurance companies pay for low-vision exams, according to Kinsella.
"The ones who don't aren't actually (offered) in Berkshire County," he said.
For information ...
Contact the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired at 508-854-0700; on the Web: visit www.mabvi.org. To reach Optical Care Associates in Pittsfield, call 413-443-4404.
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