Editor's note: Ms. Ching is on the staff at the Society for the Blind in Sacramento, California. The senior intensive retreat is the first of its kind; seniors losing vision learn the skills of blindness so they can continue their lives.
What is this program we call Senior Intensive Retreat, (SIR)? It is a 10-day, fun-filled learning experience in the skills of blindness for seniors sustaining vision loss. They come and learn new things. They stretch themselves. They acknowledge their vision loss. They find solutions one step at a time.
This might be correlated with going to school. They are given the necessary tools for living as a blind person. They learn such daily living skills as cleaning a dirty floor, cooking a meal for a large group, and learning how to barbecue. Seniors learn how to use a long white cane, master street crossings, shop for food, get around on a bus and to do all of this safely.
We teach them some computer skills. Some enjoy e-mailing their grandchildren, some like reading online. Beginning Braille is taught so that these seniors can label and maintain phone numbers. They find Braille helpful for marking spices and tagging clothes for color recognition.
Women learn to apply makeup, and everyone can learn hair styling. The students sew on buttons using what we call blindness techniques. As you see from the above, we give them an introduction to as many blindness skills as they can absorb. Let me say, they do very well, for they know that these skills will allow them to live the kind of life they had before blindness.
This retreat setting is by no means a vacation. One senior arrived with the notion that this 10 days was to be a time to lean back in his chair and have everything done for him. Boy, was he in for a surprise!
Seniors learn from 10 to 12 hours per day. Time passes very fast for all of us because we are all having so much fun!
Since these seniors are losing vision, they realize the value of non-visual techniques. They wear sleep shades. In this setting they have a very safe place to try their new techniques.
Now, let me tell you about the staff. The director, Connie Leblond, is responsible for keeping all reports up to date. Also, we have two social workers, one Braille instructor and one person who lives in the house full-time. We have a driver who has many duties; one is transporting the seniors from their home to the house for the 10-day stay. I am in charge of curriculum.
Now, let me describe the daily schedule. Seniors have breakfast between 7:30 and 8:30. Fifteen minutes after breakfast, everyone must be prompt and gather in the conference room. At that time we have the daily announcements. They then break up into three groups. The day is divided into three classes. Classes are cane travel, daily living skills and computer skills. Each class is two hours.
There is one class in the morning, then comes lunch and two more classes in the afternoon. After classes, some rest while others take a stroll around the neighborhood. Next comes dinner, then speakers or watching movies.
Part of the learning is preparing food for dinner. Seniors learn to chop and cut food such as onions and vegetables to be put in stews and casseroles. They bake, broil, and fry, trying all cooking methods. Every meal is a learning experience. Remember, they wear their sleep shades all day.
Sleep shades are worn so that the students realize they can do all they want to do as a blind person. We teach the seniors each step in the process of doing tasks. They serve themselves and cut their own food. Also, before meals, they find their chair, for many have given up going out to a restaurant because they did not want to embarrass themselves. By not going out, they isolated themselves from the life they once knew.
When seniors come to the program, they have a lot to learn about blindness, and they succeed. At the dinner table, we have time to talk about the funny things that happened during the day. They are no longer embarrassed about spilling food or anything else.
Also, they gain new friends who are experiencing vision loss, but now they have positive solutions to their problems.
Cane travel is always an adventure. First the students learn how to hold the cane, and how it will keep them safe. When they move the cane, they find out how it locates objects in their environment. Students learn to listen to traffic and, when the sun is out, to use it for finding direction. First, they take walks down quiet streets and then they advance to crossing streets. Seniors go grocery shopping, and learn that with customer service they can shop without help from family members or friends. One student had not stepped into a store to shop since she went blind, two years ago. One student thought she had to give up her crafts. But when she went to a craft store while at the retreat, she realized that she could continue her favorite pastime. This student went to the craft store using her white cane under sleep shades, used customer service and came out the happiest student in the world.
One of the outings is to a railroad museum. With their canes, they ascend and descend train steps. They go to a mall, shop for clothes and use escalators. Students go to a movie theater, find their seat and go out for popcorn. Seniors go to a buffet restaurant, get their food and find a seat. Then they enjoy going back for seconds. Let me tell you, these seniors can eat! Independently, they get soup, main courses and finally-never forget dessert!
Students enjoy using a computer. With speech to read the screen, students have a go at using this technology regardless of experience. Those who do not know how to use the keyboard start with that. They use e-mail. Word processing is explored. Lastly, they do Internet searches. One lady was so happy that she could do things online like shopping on the net.
Another lady was so happy to learn Braille that she is progressing to contracted Braille. She is already labeling items and writing down phone numbers. She can also read what she has written! Last week, a lady who is 85 was mastering Braille.
These seniors use non-visual techniques and very soon they realize why we have them wear the sleep shades. Many of them no longer have a need for their closed circuit TV, which they could not use very well anymore.
One student had enjoyed sewing throughout her life. Before she came to the retreat, she was threading her needle under her CCTV. After she came to our program, she put on the sleep shade and was threading a needle in five minutes. That was her first try. Now she does it as fast as a sighted person.
At the retreat, seniors losing vision realize that they are not going through this new journey alone. They come and find friendship and mentoring. We host discussion groups during which they talk about their family members and the problems the seniors have with them. It helps to be able to share feelings. They talk about their vision loss and how to deal with their family and the public. They talk about how they feel carrying a long white cane. They wrestle with the tough questions and come up with positive solutions.
In the evening, they listen to successful blind people who are living independent lives. These speakers serve as role models for our seniors. Members of the NFB come and share the purposes of the organized blind movement.
It is our hope that after the 10 short days that the seniors will be plugged into organizations such as the NFB, for then they go home and continue to find answers to their endless questions. The retreat is simply a springboard for what is ahead for them. Alone, we cannot teach the seniors all that they need to know. We need help from the NFB.
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