Byline: Jane Oppermann
There are barely perceptible changes at first. People's facial features might appear softer, slightly blurred. Road signs and fine print might seem fuzzy and slightly out of focus. But it isn't simply the normal process of aging you're dealing with this time.
A doctor diagnoses it as age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of legal blindness in people 65 years and older.
About 1.7 million people over age 65 struggle with AMD, a disease of the retina affecting central vision. About 100,000 are blinded because of the disease.
With no cure and limited treatment available, it's becoming an important and growing public health problem as the population ages, reports the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research.
Think of Dennis Bowling and his dog Alfie as guides, if you will, helping individuals traverse the difficult, often frightening, path through this disease.
Alfie, a 2-year-old German shepherd, was expertly trained at Seeing Eye in Morristown, N.J. to be Bowling's eyes as the clinical psychologist goes to his offices each day in Wheaton, Oaklawn and Chicago.
Bowling has a master's degree from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Loyola University in Chicago. But it's Bowling's own personal experience with declining vision that provided him with the most intimate and unrelenting training.
It wasn't macular degeneration that caused Bowling's vision loss, eventually submerging him in an intractable world of darkness just as he was about to enter college. Bowling was 11 years old, a curious, athletic kid living in rural Kentucky at the time he discovered several explosive devices used by local farmers to clear tree stumps and rocks from their fields.
The dynamite, encased in brass and thrown from a car by a group of adolescents, exploded immediately into both of his eyes and his upper body.
Seven operations in the next seven years brought back vision for a while. But just two weeks into his freshman year in college, doctors told him that the abrupt loss of sight after his last surgery was irreparable and permanent.
The 48-year-old Wheaton resident knows only too well the path of denial and resistance many disabled take when they face limitations.
He walked that path as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky in Lexington after he finally realized there was no chance of regaining his sight.
Isolating himself from others at school, rejecting his parents' pleas to return home, Bowling refused to acknowledge his blindness or accept any services or adaptive equipment for the visually impaired.
That refusal to admit his disability took its toll, eventually leaving him unable to muster emotional resources for any satisfactory academic performance. …