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Tackling Avoidable Vision Loss

Dr Vânia de la Fuente-Núñez (Credit: Headshot supplied by author)

Suharni, a 52-year-old grandmother from Indonesia, originally moved to Saudi Arabia to find work as a cook, sending money home to her family in Central Lombok. Then she returned to her Indonesian home and became a school cleaner. But for the past three years, Suharni – the reliable matriarch of her family – has been completely blind. Confined to her home, she became entirely dependent on her family, who had to help her with basic daily activities, such as walking and bathing.

This is where The Fred Hollows Foundation – an international charity with a mission to eliminate unnecessary blindness from the world – stepped into the equation. The Foundation was able to support Suharni in getting cataract surgery, which restored her sight so that she was able to properly live again.

Sadly, Suharni’s story is in no way unique. Vision impairment and loss impacts millions of older people worldwide, and it can be, in many cases, a completely avoidable condition. Today, an estimated 73 percent of people living with avoidable vision impairment are older people – amounting to 800 million people globally. As the world’s population ages, this figure is estimated to rise to 927 million by 2050 unless urgent action is taken.

A new report released on World Sight Day by The Fred Hollows Foundation and the International Federation of Ageing (IFA) – ‘Connecting Healthy Ageing and Vision’ – emphasizes the need for closer collaboration between the eye health and aging sectors. The report presents vision as instrumental to advancing healthy aging by pinpointing the wide-ranging impact of vision loss on individuals and society at large. As has been well documented, vision loss affects the physical and mental health of older people, as well as their ability to function within the community. Losing sight means facing an increased risk of mortality, cognitive decline, falls, and depression, and, when environments are not made accessible for blind and visually impaired people, this can often result in a loss of independence for older people especially. This lack of accessibility can lead to the elderly becoming confined to their homes, increasing social isolation and loneliness in later life.

Existing inequities in healthcare access and other socioeconomic factors contribute to the increased burden of vision impairment among older people, with a notable impact on women and those with limited education or lower income levels. Indeed, older women account for 56 percent of vision loss cases. And while many eye conditions become more common as people age, blindness should not be inevitable. The UN Decade of Healthy Ageing (2021 to 2030) recognizes vision as a key part of overall health, and prioritizes healthy aging from research through to policy and practice.

As well as contributing to the UN initiative, The Fred Hollows Foundation is running a series of innovative pilot projects in Vietnam, China, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda that are improving access to eye care services and integrated care for older people. Through its past work, the Foundation has already restored sight to more than 3 million people worldwide.

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About the Author
Dr Vânia de la Fuente-Núñez

Dr Vânia de la Fuente-Núñez is the Healthy Ageing Senior Advisor at The Fred Hollows Foundation

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