One in five people aged over 75 experience sight loss. This can be an upsetting experience in itself, but all the more daunting because of the additional cost that it brings to everyday life. When your failing vision means that you have to get help cleaning your house, or use more taxis because getting the bus is difficult, life can get significantly more expensive.
Our latest research looking at the additional costs of sight loss for the charity Thomas Pocklington Trust, has shown that as people get older and visual impairment becomes more severe, these costs really mount up. For a severely sight impaired person of pension age who lives alone, our research shows that the minimum spending required for an acceptable standard of living is a hefty 73% more than for a pensioner who is not visually impaired.
This research uses the Minimum Income Standard (MIS) approach and is based on detailed group discussions among people with sight loss about what items would need to be different for someone is visually impaired, compared to those in the MIS budgets for a sighted person, in order to reach a minimum acceptable standard of living. The additional amount a severely sight impaired pensioner needs to spend comes to over £135 a week.
Where do all these additional costs come from, and why are they so high? One clue comes from the nature of the costs involved. Those involving human help, for example paying for help in the home with domestic tasks or paperwork, or the cost of getting a taxi, when used on a regular basis add most to the weekly budgets. These recurring weekly costs can add more to a budget than large less frequent outlays, such as for expensive equipment, when costed over time.
Sight loss brings extra costs whenever it is experienced, in life, but our research shows why they are especially high for many pensioners. Participants in our groups explained how older people who have acquired sight loss later in life can need more of such help as they face the joint impact of adjusting to deteriorating sight and lower mobility, even with relatively less severe sight loss. Difficulties with balance, being less steady on their feet, concerns about falling combined with having to adapt and learn new ways of doing things, relying on others to do tasks that they previously did themselves, loss of confidence and feelings of vulnerability or isolation all contributed to additional costs for help in the home, safety and security measures, food preparation, and taxis.
A key feature of MIS is that it describes living standard that allows people the opportunity to participate in society, and this was important across all groups. Our research highlights that this can involve, not just extra taxis or the cost of activities, but a potentially ‘hidden cost’ – the cost of reciprocation. Being able to get out and about, or go on holiday can mean accepting help from friends or family, but people in our research stressed the importance of being able to contribute to their costs – to treat someone to a drink or a meal, or towards some holiday costs for a someone who accompanies them, who enabled them to ‘have a life’. Being able to reciprocate made it easier to accept help and provided dignity.
This research has made an important step in providing evidence about the additional costs that visually impaired people face. These are exactly the sorts of costs that make Attendance Allowance such an important benefit, and evidence such as this recently helped to see off a government proposal to reforms that raised concerns about its future.
But what does this mean in reality, on a day to day level for the many people living with sight loss?
We are now embarking on a new phase of research to place these findings in context. This will use in-depth interviews to look at the experiences of visually impaired people whose incomes fall under the MIS level, to explore how this affects their ability to meet their needs, and how people adapt and cope in their daily lives.