May 25, 2018
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Nonprofit Iris Network helps Mainers with vision loss to keep sight of living independently

Jackie Farwell | BDN
Jackie Farwell | BDN
Dot MacDonald, 84, of Portland, examines quilt scraps with Karen McKenna, a vision rehabilitation therapist at the Iris Network, on June 17, 2014. McKenna has helped MacDonald adjust to vision loss.
By Jackie Farwell, BDN Staff

Dot MacDonald sat at the kitchen table of her quaint Portland home this week, combing through fabric scraps and envisioning her next quilt. At 84, MacDonald has lost much of her vision, an impediment that threatened not only her once-fulfilling hobby but also her ability to care for her nearly 90-year-old husband with dementia.

Her mind is sharp, but her vision’s blurry. Once simple tasks became difficult or impossible. Threading the needle on her sewing machine. Intricately hand-embroidering her quilts. Measuring out the correct dose of her husband’s insulin. Reading the bathroom scale when she weighs him every few days to check whether his congestive heart failure has caused fluid to build up in his lungs.

“I was pretty discouraged at the beginning,” MacDonald said.

She grew frustrated with quilting and other creative pursuits, such as painting, that had always fed her soul.

“I know I’m a perfectionist, and I won’t be satisfied until it’s perfect,” MacDonald said.

But Karen McKenna knew that MacDonald’s diagnosis of macular degeneration didn’t have to mean losing sight of her passions. McKenna, a certified vision rehabilitation therapist with The Iris Network, began visiting MacDonald last fall.

The network, a century-old statewide nonprofit that counts Joshua Chamberlain and Helen Keller as early supporters, helps people with blindness and vision impairment to maintain independence and a place in their communities. With six field offices throughout Maine, the network serves 1,000 clients on average each year.

McKenna, a fellow quilter, showed MacDonald ways to work around her vision loss, such as improving the lighting in her sewing room. She demonstrated how to thread a needle on a sewing machine using a plastic floss loop. For mending fabric by hand, McKenna stuck a needle in a bar of soap to hold it steady, showing MacDonald how to hold the thread taut and place it through the eye by feel.

“I started calling her Heloise, because of all her tips,” MacDonald teased.

Earlier this week, McKenna brought over the fabric scraps that MacDonald sifted through at the kitchen table. As the older woman matched a lizard-print cutting with a bit of bright green fabric, McKenna said she hoped to encourage MacDonald to pursue a more free-form quilting style she might find less discouraging. Hobbies can prove a crucial source of energy and enjoyment late in life, she said.

“If it’s driving you crazy, it’s not a hobby,” McKenna said. “It’s a duty.”

She also helped MacDonald learn to count the clicks on her husband’s insulin pen, rather than relying on the tiny numbers to measure the proper dose.

Most of The Iris Network’s clients are age 60 and older, though the organization also serves clients as young as teenagers. Vision rehabilitation therapist services are covered by a contract with Maine’s Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired, within the state Department of Labor, so clients pay no out-of-pocket fees.

The network’s services also include social workers, support groups and counseling by trained therapists. Its on-site housing, Iris Park Apartments in Portland, was specifically designed for low-income individuals with visual impairment.

The network also operates a low-vision clinic and training center in Portland where clients learn to make the most of their remaining vision and develop computer and technology skills useful for landing employment. The organization’s founder, William J. Ryan, a traveling almanac salesman who was visually impaired, once operated a workshop where blind individuals could learn a trade, fashioning brooms, caned chairs and mattresses.

MacDonald’s pursuits remain more artistic. McKenna also is trying to convince her to try a more impressionist painting style that demands less of her eyesight. MacDonald’s not so sure.

“I always said I like to be able to tell what I’m looking at,” she said with a grin.

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