Help me help my almost 99-year-old grandmother read again!
December 19, 2006 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Help me help my almost 99-year-old grandmother read again! Excessively epic story inside.

My grandmother is very elderly, but in incredible mental shape. She's very hard of hearing. She wears hearing aides, but you must speak loudly and slowly for her to hear you, and I suspect that she only gets bits and pieces and uses context to fill in the rest. She's been very hard of hearing for a long time, but I can tell that it's gotten much worse over time. I can speak on the phone with her, but we can't talk long. When I visit with her in person, we have long conversations where I ask her all sorts of questions about her long and interesting life.

She also has macular degeneration, and her eyesight is now extremely poor. She stopped listening to the radio and watching television a while back because of her hearing problems, but now she has stopped reading because it is frustrating and too difficult for her. I can tell this is a major blow to her, as she's always loved to read.

She says that she can read with a magnifying glass but that it's "a pain in the ass" - which I can understand. She only has one of those handheld magnifying glasses. I asked her if she had tried books on tape and she says she can't really hear them (not a big surprise).

I plan on visiting a medical supply store today to see if they have anything to help out here - I think I remember seeing a magnifying glass that goes over a book so you don't have to hold it at least, but I'm trying to think of a good long term solution as her eyesight gets worse. I would like to suggest that she learn braille, in case she goes blind, but I'm worried that it will upset her and don't know where to begin with that. I live in Boston and she's here in Los Angeles, and it's rare that I get to see her, so I can't visit with her and help keep her mind sharp like I know that reading has.

So, wise mefites, do you have any ideas here?
posted by pazazygeek to Health & Fitness (18 answers total)
At Borders and other bookstores, they have plastic, page-sized magnifying sheets that are light and powerful. That may be less cumbersome than any heavy glass that is big or strong enough to be of any use to her.

Looks and works like this.
posted by hermitosis at 8:11 AM on December 19, 2006

Try craft stores for the hands-free magnifying glasses. They sell them because they're good for cross-stitch and embroidery and the like, and they often have a built in light.
posted by corvine at 8:12 AM on December 19, 2006

Can she hear books on tape using good stereo headphones? That's a lot different than just listening to a cd player a few feet away.
posted by hermitosis at 8:12 AM on December 19, 2006

It's a nice thought, but I doubt that anyone at 99 is going to be able to learn Braille, no matter how great their mental shape. Maybe I'm wrong. I just don't see it happening.

When my grandfather began to have trouble reading in his 90s, we got him a large magnifying glass (like this) that he could hold over a book. At some point, my dad framed it and tied a string to either side so that it hung around my grandfather's neck, perpendicular to his chest. There's also something like this, if that's easier than rigging something to hang around her neck. (Images from
posted by amro at 8:13 AM on December 19, 2006

I used to work with a publication specializing in assistive technology. Based on what I've read on the subject, I'd suggest getting your grandma a VideoEye. For more magnifier choices, check here. You may also find the links here useful.

I'm glad you want to help your grandma.
posted by melissa may at 8:16 AM on December 19, 2006

I found this page of resources through Lighthouse.
posted by hermitosis at 8:17 AM on December 19, 2006

Here's some more info on video magnifiers.
posted by teg at 8:18 AM on December 19, 2006

You might want to try large print books (or magazines, crosswords) in addition to the magnifying glass and reading glasses. Most libraries have a selection of books in large print (and I know I've managed to find crosswords in large print at a good bookstore before, for my grandmother). Large print alone won't be enough, but with one or both of the aids, should make things a bit easier.
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:50 AM on December 19, 2006

When was the last time she saw an audiologist? Apologies if this seems obvious, but a lot of people with late-acquired hearing loss don't realize that hearing aids need to be readjusted every so often.

Depending on the kind of hearing aids she has, that may also provide options - she (or you) may be able to buy a DAI, or Direct Audio Input, cable from her audiologist, or use a neckloop. Either of these would most likely be better than regular headphones if she has anything more than a mild loss (if her hearing aids don't have either of those options, you should still talk to an audiologist, as they may be able to suggest something). The nice thing about those is that you can crank the volume as high as you want, and there's less (or no) background noise to worry about. I have a severe to profound loss, and usually a DAI cable with my laptop or ipod does the trick (note: I've found that I can up the volume on my laptop more than on my ipod or a CD/tape player, so that may be something to think about as well).

That's not a guaranteed solution; not all hearing losses can be fixed by hearing aids, and it's possible that tweaking her aids and getting a cable won't help. But it's quite likely to work, so talking to an audiologist is really the way to go here.

Braille is most likely not a solution - like someone else said, it's not something you can just pick up, both because it's a whole new sensory skill and because there are a bunch of abbreviations to learn. Too, I think Braille books are pretty expensive, and the selection is somewhat limited. (This is not based on first hand experience, so I could be wrong.)
posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:50 AM on December 19, 2006

Oh, if you want help finding out if her hearing aids would be compatible with either of those options, my email's in my profile.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:54 AM on December 19, 2006

How bad is her eyesight? You can find large print books if it's not that bad. Amazon even has a couple of (crap) titles.

Second the headphones suggestion. My grandfather could hardly hear even after trying many hearing aids, but found out that he heard everything perfectly with good headphones. For some time he even carried around a walkman with no tape that he set to record to use as a hearing aid.
posted by stereo at 8:56 AM on December 19, 2006

I'm going to pass some of these ideas along to my father-in-law, the Video-Eye looks great.

When you said she can't hear the books on tape, has she only tried commercially produced books on tape? There are several organizations that cater to audio books for the blind and visually impaired, and they record at a slower speed and are played through special cassette players. My Father-in-law gets all his books free from a program through the Library of Congress. For L.A., the program is offered throught the Braille Insitute. They have a great website, including a low-vision rehabilitation consultation.
posted by saffry at 9:44 AM on December 19, 2006

is there some kind of program that will show words on a computer screen (large and high-contrast font) while also reading them out loud? so that each sense can help fill in context for the other? like a book system for deaf-blind people?
posted by twistofrhyme at 11:49 AM on December 19, 2006

To add to the large print & computer screen suggestions--something I've tried with my grandma is finding short articles of interest to her online, increasing the text size to the point where she can't miss it, and then printing the pages. This isn't too practical for someone who is a voracious reader, but would work for someone who likes to read certain things (a special poem, selected religious text, new recipes, etc.) over and over again.
posted by PY at 2:27 PM on December 19, 2006

I work with blind and low vision people for a living. There are lots of solutions for your grandmother, but different magnifiers work in different ways for different eye diseases. It's always best to get a demonstration of the different types of equipment and solutions. Some devices are more complicated and have more features than others. There's a company in Boston (Adaptive Technology Consulting) that sells a lot of equipment for visually impaired people. They will be more than happy to show your grandmother some equipment and help you figure out what's going to work best.

Note: my company is called Adaptive Technology Services, but I am not related to Adaptive Technology Consultants in Boston, however, the owner is a friend of mine. I don't sell any of the equipment that you'll find on the web site, but I do provide assessments to help people figure out what kind of equipment to buy. Check out the Adaptive Technology Consultants website and fell free to email me if you have any questions. Email address is in my profile.

By the way, if she's not in the Boston area, let me know and I'll refer you to someone in her area.
posted by rsclark at 3:19 PM on December 19, 2006

Oops, I just noticed she's in Los Angeles. She might want to contact Sweetman Systems for a demonstration.
posted by rsclark at 3:37 PM on December 19, 2006

I took a look at the new Sony Reader the other day, and the screen technology is really different than anything I'd ever seen. It doesn't look like it's a screen at all, and it's incredibly easy on the eyes. It has a text size adjustment, so whatever you're reading can be displayed in large text, without the bulk and heft of a large print book. The downside is the $350 price.
posted by daisyace at 5:01 PM on December 19, 2006

her eyesight is now extremely poor. She stopped listening to the radio and watching television a while back because of her hearing problems, but now she has stopped reading because it is frustrating and too difficult for her. I can tell this is a major blow to her, as she's always loved to read.

Not quite the same, but is her eyesight good enough to read closed captioning on TV or DVDs? It could provide some entertainment.
posted by dilettante at 4:49 PM on December 20, 2006

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