The interior designer and co-host of “Nate & Jeremiah by Design” shares his ideas for home updates that can make spaces safer — without sacrificing style — for people with vision loss.
Celebrity interior designer and TLC host on “Nate & Jeremiah by Design,” Nate Berkus, recalls standing in his grandmother’s condo brainstorming how to make her living space safer and easier to navigate as she managed her declining vision.
“At the time, I didn’t have any answers,” Berkus told Healthline.
However, over the years, he gained insight and plans to share it to help others living with vision loss.
In partnership with the pharmaceutical company Novartis and ophthalmology advocacy groups, Berkus is taking part in the My Home in Sight program, which aims to help those with wet macular degeneration (wet AMD), an eye disease that causes blurred vision or a blind spot, make simple design changes that can preserve their independence without sacrificing style.
“I’m offering my design ideas to make it easier for people with declining vision to live in their homes,” Berkus said. “For me, it’s a bit of a full circle moment. I really hope that with this campaign, anyone who has a loved one who is dealing with declining vision or wet AMD has a toolkit at their fingertips to help [their loved one] keep their independence in the safety of their home.”
The campaign offers a kit, which includes a guide with room-by-room suggestions, an interactive audio guide, and hands-on tools to help incorporate Berkus’ following design principles:
- color and contrast
- low-vision tools
Many of Berkus’ principals resonate with Neva Fairchild, national aging and vision loss specialist, who has lived with low vision her whole life due to cone-rod dystrophy, a degenerative retinal disorder.
Fairchild says safety is the main goal with designing a home for the visually impaired.
“We know that falls are very dangerous for older people and for those with vision loss, falls are twice as likely and the risk of falling is higher especially when the home is poorly lit,” Fairchild told Healthline.
As the national independent living associate at the American Foundation for the Blind Center (AFB) on Vision Loss in Dallas, Fairchild is responsible for Esther’s Place, a demonstration model apartment equipped with over 500 products to show people with vision loss how they can live as independently as possible.
“A lot of times, making the space comfortable is half the battle. Easy walking paths and a comfortable chair and lighting and all of that is important, but it’s also about being able to feel comfortable walking around in your own home… it’s about arrangements and defined spaces,” Fairchild said.
She shares some of her top tips.
Eighty-five percent of people who have vision loss have some remaining vision, says Fairchild.
“Helping them to use that vision to maximum potential is really important. That’s usually accomplished by seeing an ophthalmologist and also a low-vision specialist,” she said.
A specialist can help determine if there are magnification products or glasses that can improve contrast sensitivity, she adds.
“These help make what we see easier to see,” Fairchild said.
From rugs that are a contrasting color of the floor and kitchen towels with contrasting color from the countertop, to dark place mats under white place settings, Fairchild says thinking in terms of contrast is essential.
Berkus suggests using contrasting colored tape along the edges of rugs or tops and bottoms of a lamp shade.
“Some of these are associated with safety and some with reducing frustration when trying to accomplish the things a person always has,” Fairchild said.
Defining parts of a living space through contrast with furniture can also help a person with vision loss navigate around.
“Open concept is in style but not practical for many with vision loss. Having furniture arranged so that you can use the walls and couches to touch and follow a path to say a couch, is helpful,” said Fairchild.
Painting trim different colors than walls also helps to define space.
In addition to well-lit areas throughout a home, Fairchild says lighting that allows you to angle a lamp at your task is especially important. For example, she uses task lighting in the kitchen to chop vegetables or to help determine if meat is thoroughly cooked.
“For me, I’m visually impaired and light-sensitive so a light shining in my face washes out what I can see, whereas if it’s focused on the task, it enhances what I see,” she said.
One of the best ways a loved one can help a person with low vision is to declutter and organize their space.
“I feel very strongly that every area of the home should be organized, but with people with declining vision it’s really important,” said Berkus. “My grandma could never find her keys and her bag so we put a hook and small shelf next to the front door so every time she came in, she put her purse and keys in same location. Same formula can be applied to what’s in the linen closest or in the junk drawer.”
Fairchild stresses that while helping is good, be sure to listen to what the person with low vision says works best for them.
“A lot of well-meaning helpers and family members might say, ‘We’re here; let us change things and organize for you,’ and then suddenly you can’t find anything,” said Fairchild.
Because a lot of technology, such as Echo and Google Home, don’t have screens, Fairchild says they’re great for assisting the visually impaired in their homes.
“They do take some knowledge and cognitive ability, but even using a few functions like asking for the time and date and to make a call to your daughter can be helpful,” she said.
She suggests testing products for a day to see how they work with vision loss, and if they don’t help, returning them right away.
For a list of technology resources for people with vision loss, visit the AFB website.
“Know that you’ll find the solutions to the things you struggle with because of your vision,” said Fairchild. “Reaching out and not being afraid to ask questions about what you’re struggling with is the secret to it.”
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.