Three generations deal with the effects of macular degeneration.
Considering she'd had her eyes checked regularly every two years for as far back as she could remember, 62-year-old Alice Hammer had no reason to expect any excitement at her ophthalmologist appointment. So when her doctor examined her eyes and said, quite matter-of-factly, that she'd be blind within seven years, she was a bit taken aback.
"He freaked me out," Hammer, now 73, recalls. "He told me I had macular degeneration – which I'd never even heard of – and that I'd soon be completely blind. It felt so scary."
So Hammer quickly packed up her diagnosis and all her belongings to move from her home in California to Colorado, where she hoped her daughter and granddaughter would help care for her as she went blind.
When Alice arrived in Colorado, her granddaughter, Alycia, then 5 years old, said, "Grandma, when you can't see anymore, I'll read to you."
It touched Alice's heart, especially since she'd volunteered for years at the university where she'd worked reading text books to tape for blind students. "It's very ironic," she says. "I'd always felt so awful for people who couldn't see. I couldn't imagine going through life in darkness."
As Alice spent time researching AMD, she found the *Macular Degeneration Partnership [former AMD program of DEF] and learned complete blindness wasn't as definite as her doctor had promised. She subscribed to the AMD Update e-newsletter, relying on it to give her the latest information on her condition. Her daughter, Christine Stewart, also looked to MDP, as it gave her mother "a resource, a family, a community – a place to look when she got scared," she says. "MDP also gave me validation that my healthy lifestyle will really help my future, since AMD is hereditary."
The more Alice learned, the more she realized her eyes' future wasn't written in stone. As the seven-year anniversary of her diagnosis approached and she could still see fairly well, she decided to "put the AMD aside and live." Since she'd never liked Colorado, she moved back to the West Coast "to have some fun." She settled in Washington state, where the cool, damp weather makes her eyes much more comfortable than dry Colorado.
Last year, Alice's low vision convinced her to give up her car; it happened to be at about the same time Alycia got her driver's permit. The three generations took a good old-fashioned road trip to drive the car from Washington to Colorado. "The trip was magnificent; it was wonderful to take mom to all these places where she hadn't been," Christine says. "But, it was excruciatingly nerve-wracking." Because of Alice's eye condition? "No, because mom was nervous about Alycia driving. There are not enough sedatives in the world for her to feel comfortable driving with a teenager."
Despite that, the two have maintained a wonderfully close relationship, and Alycia still thinks of ways to help her grandmother. She maps out local bus routes and accompanies her on test runs to area destinations during annual summer visits to Seattle; both women carefully point out that reading aloud is not yet necessary.
Alycia also helps her grandmother by supporting MDP. When she was younger, she decided to request donations to charity in lieu of birthday gifts every year. "I felt like I was making a difference even though I was little and couldn't do much," the 16-year-old says. Because it has helped her grandmother, MDP has become a lucky recipient of her unusual generosity.
"My grandma is awesome," Alycia says. "She likes to read and walk, and she doesn't let her macular degeneration hold her back." Christine concurs: "I think she's doing spectacularly. She's the happiest she's been in as long as I can remember."
"I don't sit here and feel sorry for myself," Alice adds. She is perfectly at home in her retirement community in Seattle, right across the street from her new retinal specialist – who doesn't happen to think Alice will ever go totally blind.
Posted June 2011
*The Macular Degeneration Partnership became a program of the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, UC Irvine in 2016.