The idea of having a personal assistant would be manna from heaven among most harried caregivers. How wonderful it would be to have someone help with the grocery shopping, paying the bills, finding just the right holiday gifts and all the other things that might be a pleasure—if only we had the time! Put yourself in the shoes of a person with low vision, and this service becomes a necessity.
While there are many personal assistants available, few are as specialized as Nan Ahern. Nan has worked for Manhattan socialites and celebrities, helping them organize everything from cocktail parties to closets. She has also volunteered for Lighthouse for the Blind for eight years, reading to the blind, recording books on tape.
Now Nan offers her special skills as help for vision-impaired clients. As people get older, vision impairments such as macular degeneration can become more common, and the consequences of poor vision impact quality of life. Vision problems can lead to difficulties in many areas of daily living. "Sometimes the sons and daughters lose patience; they don't want to deal with parental needs," Nan observes.
Nan has developed a specialized service that will help in these activities of daily living:
- Grocery shopping and running errands. Shopping can be very difficult if you can't read labels. And once you bring it home, more problems arise. If things are placed on low shelves, people may lose balance and fall trying to retrieve them. Nan organizes the pantry, placing items where they're easily accessible: "I will tell them, the soups are on the left, the canned fruit is on the right."
- Organizing closets and drawers. If you can't see well, how do you know the black socks from the blue? Nan organizes closets and drawers so that you'll know the black socks are in the plastic bin on the left; others are on the right. Nan also organizes the medicine cabinet.
- Clothing care. "Sometimes they can't see if their clothing is stained or torn," Nan said. "If their shoes need new heels, they won't see it." Nan will sort, mend, iron or donate clothing.
- Correspondence, bills and mail. Nan uses colored folders to organize bills and mail. "They can often see colors. They can discriminate between red, pale blue and yellow folders," so Nan uses them.
- Doctor, dentist and hair appointments. If people don't have someone to accompany them to scheduled health-care appointments, problems won't be addressed when they are small. Not only that, Nan takes notes of what the doctor explains things to them. "Sometimes people forget," she explained.
- Gifts. Nan will search out gifts online and in stores. Then she'll present her client with options from top of the line to less costly. Once the decision is made, she'll order, wrap and deliver the gift.
- Overseeing household cleaning and repair service. People with poor vision won't see if something is dirty or needs polishing, Nan said. "I'm sort of a babysitter for the repairman," she explained.
While all of this care is critical for an elder's wellbeing, there's another crucial aspect to Nan's work: she believes this trusting relationship demands the utmost patience, diplomacy and discretion. Further, she adds, "You want to make them feel they are maintaining a certain amount of independence." Organizing things so they can find them without help facilitates a sense of independence.
Nan does not advertise her service; rather, she relies on word of mouth. "Would you look at an ad at the grocery store for someone to help your mother?" she asked. "This is a trusting, intimate situation. It takes sensitivity."
It also takes maturity. "You wouldn't find a lot of 25-year-olds who could do this," she noted.