Visually impaired Centre County residents get help from class

Ann Wian, 79, of Bellefonte, has difficulty seeing colors, even with her glasses.

After she was diagnosed as legally blind seven years ago, she started writing the colors of each item on the tags of her clothes with a black permanent marker to help her decide what to wear.

But next week, Wian will be part of a class that will show blind and visually impaired seniors how to organize clothing and do other tasks.

On Wednesday morning, Wian was one of three Centre County women who all have age-related macular degeneration who took advantage of the Jump Start Program, which focused on time management.

It’s an eight-week program held at the Ferguson Township Lions Club designed to expose independent-living seniors to different types of services. It’s hosted by the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation’s Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services of Altoona, social worker Steve Kechisen said.

Most classes have about a dozen clients and provide 40 to 50 hours of training that includes rehabilitation teaching, orientation and mobility instruction, as well as discussion groups.

Rehab teachers Lindsey Palumbo and Kathy Stevens help individuals safely and efficiently carry out daily activities that help them stay independent.

“The goal is for customers to become more self-sufficient in their homes and communities,” Kechisen said. “It shows them skills they need now and in the future, when their vision further deteriorates, and can boost their confidence and knowledge when they feel isolated.”

Instruction includes clothing care, laundry and labeling; time and money management; food preparation and cooking; eating and drinking; telephone use; and leisure activities.

This is the first year the bureau brought the program to Centre County, in hopes of making it an annual session in the State College area, Kechisen said. The Altoona office caters to eligible clients in 16 counties.

In Centre County, Kechisen said, the bureau has about 300 blind and visually impaired clients, from infants to those in their 90s. But that is not nearly the number of visually impaired residents in the county, he said.

“Some people just don’t report their disability,” Kechisen said.

The mission of OVR’s Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services is to assist Pennsylvanians living with those disabilities, said Susan Neff, aging services specialist.

In week six of the program, time management lessons were given. The three seniors tested low vision, working with wristwatches and calendars with large type.

It might not have been stylish, but the watch helped 86-year-old Shirley “Shay” Keller, of Pine Grove Mills, tell the time when her eyes couldn’t do it for her.

Jeanne Lebkicher, 89, of Foxdale Village, said a check stencil offered at the class was the most beneficial for her.

“Most times I write on an upward or downward angle, and my writing was rarely legible,” Lebkicher said.

Other lessons included ways to fold cash so the individual knows what the dollar amounts are when shuffling through a wallet, and using special sensory technology that allows the user to know how full a glass is.

Kechisen said that visually impaired seniors were taken to Nittany Mall last week to enhance communication skills with mall staff. The mission was to help those individuals become comfortable asking for directions and for specific items when they can’t find their way around.

But the toughest decision for some seniors is giving up the right to drive.

Wian said she got her license when she was 57. Lebkicher, who is completely blind in her left eye, said she has been driving nearly her whole life, but now uses her 97-year-old roommate as her “designated driver,” along with transportation services from Foxdale Village, and other friends and family, she said.

Keller said she stopped driving last summer, but these classes are teaching her the skills to move on.

“It’s hard knowing we may become completely dependent one day,” Keller said. “But these are the kinds of skills that give us the potential to keep on doing what we’ve always done.”