Jan and Elgie Dow share how vision loss has changed their relationship and the advice they have for other couples.
The Impact of Vision Loss on a Marriage
Presented by Ricky Enger
Ricky Enger: Welcome to Hadley Presents. I'm your host, Ricky Enger, inviting you to sit back, relax, and enjoy a conversation with the experts. In this episode, Hadley's chief program officer Ed Haines is joined by Jan and Elgie Dow to discuss the dynamics of vision loss from a couples' perspective. Welcome to the show, everyone.
Ed Haines: Thanks, Ricky.
Jan Dow: Yep.
Elgie Dow: Thank you Ricky.
Ricky Enger: So glad you all could be here now, Ed, you've been on the program a few times before, so I think your voice is familiar to those who have listened. Great to have you here as always, I know you always come up with some really great questions for our guests. For those who don't know Jan and Elgie, why don't we just get a brief introduction for each of you? Let's start with you, Jan.
Jan Dow: I am the sighted member of this pair. I'm a medical technologist by trade and have more of a scientific mindset.
Ricky Enger: Fantastic. And Elgie, how about you?
Elgie Dow: I'm visually impaired. I'm a licensed master social worker, clinical social worker, I'm not always so scientific about things, being a therapist, Jan and I really do make a good pair because of our different backgrounds and different ways we look at things, I think it helps, it brings a lot to our relationship.
Ricky Enger: Yeah, it sounds like it, it's that you both complement each other. One thing that really comes up quite often among our learners is not just about the practical aspects of vision loss, how do I cook again? How do I clean again? But some of the family dynamics that can change as a result of vision loss and just how do we get through that adjustment and still like each other at the end of it all and still maintain that level of individuality that we had before, as well as that level of connectedness that we had as a family? So, this is a topic that comes up all the time and I'm delighted that we have a chance to really explore that. Ed, I know you have some great questions, so I'm going to let you take it away and take us on this journey.
Ed Haines: But before we start, I do want to mention that Elgie and Jan let us know that they've just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, so congratulations to both of you, that's wonderful.
Elgie Dow: Thank you.
Jan Dow: Thank you.
Ed Haines: So, let's dive right in. I have a lot of questions to ask, and I'll start with a topic that is difficult for a lot of couples in that's offering assistance. When you have a spouse that's lost their vision sometimes it's difficult to know when and how to help them, you don't want to help too much, but you also want to make sure you're there when you're needed, so Elgie I just have a question for you, what kinds of things did you do or what language did you use to help Jan understand when and how to help you?
Elgie Dow: “I can't see.” [Laughs] I'm having troubles doing a simple thing, one of the things is that using tools, I've never been really skilled at using tools anyway, but using even a screwdriver, sometimes has been difficult and asking for help there or finding, looking for stuff, I can't see something that's right there and have to ask Jan to help me. Sometimes it's not easy to do that, it certainly wasn't at first, I had to make the adjustment to ask for help.
One of the things I used to, I did all the driving and Jan navigated with a map and that has changed, I cannot read a map quick enough to help her navigate and of course - story is that we were on our way to our niece's wedding in Iowa. We live in Eastern port part of the Upper Peninsula and we went across Upper Peninsula down through Wisconsin, to head for Iowa and got into Madison and we got lost, we had a map, it wasn't pre-GPS, but we didn't have one and we were towing our travel trailer, so we went out to the wedding, it was a great wedding, we had a good time. It was nice, but came home, guess what?
We got lost in the same place in Madison, Wisconsin, we got a GPS, so you know what I mean? You just have to ask for help. I think that was a big thing is I can't see, and I can't find this, or I can't see well enough to screw in that screw, you to admit to it, you have to ask. I guess, going back because I've I started losing my vision 40 years ago. Our daughter is, she was born 1983, so I started losing my vision about the time she was born, realizing that things were dimmer was telling Jan about it, so that was a big thing right there.
Ed Haines: That's actually a great segue into my next question. I was going to ask Jan and sometimes it's difficult to, if you're not experiencing vision loss yourself, it's kind of difficult to understand what your spouse is going through, so Jan, I just wondered if there were specific times or insights that really were revelatory for you as things that really helped you learn or realize something about Elgie's experience?
Jan Dow: The truth is we still go through that 40 years later because I do not know what he can and can't see. Things like when he couldn't pass his driver's license test, things like that are evidence that it's bad enough that he isn't going to be able to drive. The things that happened from outside the relationship are probably just as important for knowing that he can't do some things.
Ed Haines: Elgie you did mention earlier about giving up the role of driving. I wonder if there were other roles in your relationship that have changed both internal to relationship and maybe externally as you relate to the world as a couple?
Elgie Dow: Yes. We are sailors, one thing is I can no longer sail alone because I can't see well enough to. And the other thing is that the roles on the sailboat haven't changed a great deal with the exception that Jan has become my eyes to see things. There's a rock protruding out of the water or I have to get out farther or where the buoys are, where other boats are, there's a fisherman over there, in that respect, our roles have changed. Jan, she still bends the sails on and she still does that kind of stuff and I'm still at the tiller, in that regard our roles has changed, she tells me where to go.
And we're both retired and that's another thing, is that Jan's an outstanding, fantastic cook, so she does all the cooking and I do all the cleaning up and we do stuff together. We're going to be going up to the tiny house and doing some maintenance on it, we'll do it together more so than maybe before, I guess. So, our roles have changed. You know, when we cross a busy street, I take Jan's arm.
One of the things I'm going to admit to that we've talked about just recently because this, like I said, like Jan said, it's an ongoing thing, is using my cane, my white cane. I have a, my stick's name, Sumi and if you know anything about Finnish that means courage and fortitude. I don't carry my white cane enough and we've talked about that, Jan says she wishes I would take it and carry it because then when she is reaching out and taking my arm or holding me back from stepping out onto a busy street or something, or guiding me into something, people will know rather than, they'll know that she isn't just being bossy, so just recently that came up that she says. I mean, I do use it when I walk alone often through town, but she says that she wishes I would use it when, carry it all the time and I guess I'm going to do that.
Ed Haines: That's really interesting. My next question was going to be about the process of this adjustment, and you've already answered that question, but Jan, I wanted to ask you, do you have any insights or any perspective on role changes?
Jan Dow: First off, I have some sympathy for people who are obsessive about things like clean dishes. Yes, Elgie cleans up the kitchen after dinner and which means he loads and unloads the dishwasher. It's not unusual for the dishes not to be clean and you just have to take it and what are you going to do? It's either I do all of this stuff myself or I accept the fact that dishes are going to be put away and once in a while, some of them are dirty. I don't know about roles only that you need to, I don't know, you need to just go with the flow because some things you can't change.
Ed Haines: That's a really good insight, so thank you. So, you've already answered my next question, I was going to ask if you both felt like you've arrived at this point in terms of adjusting. By your response, obviously it sounds like it's an ongoing process, is that a fair assessment?
Jan Dow: We've been married 50 years; we haven't got that right yet either.
Elgie Dow: Yep, I agree with that.
Ed Haines: Well, obviously humor is part of the process for you folks. Are there some, and humor could certainly be one of these, what are some of the strategies you've discovered that you've used as a couple to be successful in adjusting division loss? Where you feel like, "Okay, we've made it, we've learned how to deal with this particular difficulty or this particular level of loss." What kind of strategies have you used to do that?
Jan Dow: Can I go first here? Because there are some things that I think are critical. Make friends with technology, you might just as well learn and be happy about using it because things like BARD and GPS and things like that are just critical to getting around in the world when one of you can't see. I have had to learn to ask for help as well, because there are not two of us who can drive, if I have to be taken somewhere and dropped off, I need to ask a friend or someone else to do it because if the car needs repair, I take it up and I wait or I have to walk home and walk back because we don't have a second car and there's not a second driver. I think the, officially, this is called a visually impaired persons group that meets monthly, I just think it's almost as important to me as it is to Elgie, he wanted to meet with people who had similar experiences. Well, we also meet with the support person for all these people and so I can learn from their experiences too.
Ed Haines: Those are fantastic strategies. And Elgie, how about you? Anything to add to that?
Elgie Dow: I think that's what Jan says is really, really important about asking for help. One of the hardest things, after all I'm a healer and at least I looked at myself as a healer, that means that I shouldn't need help, right? And maybe also growing up in Northern Michigan as a male, had something to do with it too. This macho thing, although I've never been extremely macho, but it was there and asking for help was pretty difficult, saying to people, well, when you and I got together, actually a friend of mine called you to ask your help for me, that was something and then it's 35 miles, I worked as a social worker in a professional facility and we're 35 miles from my work and I lost my driver's license, one of my co-workers who she and I had a carpool for many years, she said to me, "You don't have to worry about getting to work." She said, "We'll work things out." And we did and the support, just the support, that's very important for couples, our support group, trying to figure out how many years we've been meeting, probably at least 15, maybe a little longer than that. The support from that group and the support we both learn, and we teach together, it's just amazing. I think that's very important is to rather than isolate yourself, if you're visually impaired or blind, is to reach out and find other people who are in the same boat that you are, other couples, other support people too, like Jan said.
Ed Haines: That's fantastic advice. I was going to ask you questions about your personality in a way, I'm just curious if, and I'll let Jan answer this first maybe, if that's okay. What personal qualities Jan did you draw on through this adjustment process and where were there parts of your personality that were maybe even strengthened by this whole experience?
Jan Dow: I have learned, as hard as it might be to believe, I have learned to be more patient and in other relationships, besides our relationship with each other, although I may sometimes say it with a strange tone of voice, I am okay with saying, "Listen, if you don't want to do this, don't do it." I mean, I can go do things without him if that's, we don't have to do everything together. And of course, when Elgie said he wasn't very good with tools that's because he hasn't had to be because I'm the carpenter, plumber, electrician, a fixer of things, I always have been but now I have to, but it used to be something that a lot of women are not proud of the fact that they can do things with their hands like that. Having to do it has given me the understanding that it's okay to be the one who gets drills and saws for their birthday.
Ed Haines: So many positive things can happen out of experiences that you don't necessarily think are going to be positive. Elgie, how about you? Were there parts of your personality that have been strengthened by this experience?
Elgie Dow: Yes, I think so. I come to realize that I can be more resilient. It's amazing, I learned that I can do things that I couldn't then I didn't think I could do. I think learning to just go forward and continue on with it. I'm not one of these, well, I am a kind of an adventurer. I don't always think of myself that way to venture out and do something different. One of our experiences, Jan- I've sailed since I was a little boy and this is after losing my vision, Jan said to me, "I'd like to kayak. I'd like to learn to kayak." And I said to her, "I've been a sailor all my life, kayaking I know about a little bit, but..." I said, "I know there's as much to learn about that as there is sailing and I don't know if I have room for all that in my head."
Well, of course we ended up with sea kayaks and we ended up taking lessons and learning to do the stuff that we needed to do to survive if we roll over in Lake Superior, but we did, we went, ahead and learned all that stuff. I didn't really know or think that I'd be able to do that, I did. So, I think you have to realize that you have to reach out and explore and do things that maybe you've never done before because if you don't, you'll just stagnate, you'll just sit there, it's important to know that you're not only are you resilient, but you can adventure out.
Ed Haines: Well, thank you for that, that's fantastic advice. And actually, that brings me to my closing question, and you've covered a lot of ground, both of you already, but Jan, is there just final words of advice you'd give to other couples who are facing the same process?
Jan Dow: Yeah. Elgie said we did take on some new things and he has been visually impaired for some time now, but there are some things that you need to hang on to. We downhill ski, the only things different, I go in front of him and wear a bright colored jacket that's different than other people. So, he can see me in those where I am. We always need to be aware; I have to always be aware that if he goes someplace else in the store or even on the street, that he can't find me, and I have to be aware that I'm the one who has to be thinking about that all the time. And I'm also the one that has to find the unmute button on the Zoom call.
Ed Haines: [Laughs] That's an important button.
Jan Dow: Yes, it is.
Ed Haines: Elgie, how about you in closing? Is there any other advice you'd give to other couples that have been facing vision loss?
Elgie Dow: Yes. Take it one day at a time, no matter what difficulty pops up, stick with it. I'll tell you; commitment is one of the strong, one of the best things in a relationship. Remember that you were attracted to this person for some reason, you cared about them for some reason and even though you might be experiencing difficulties in your relationship, which Jan and I have, nobody gets through marriage without. Don't give up, give it some time, think about the positive things in your relationship. And again, remember that we are resilient, we can do things, we can reach out and ask for help, we can go forward and so those are things I think are really important.
Ed Haines: Well, Elgie, thank you, that's really a terrific uplifting way to end this segment. So, Ricky, I guess I'll turn it over to you.
Ricky Enger: Yeah. I was going to say, I agree, Ed, it's really powerful advice to say that commitment is important, it's not just about when things are going along as you expected them to, but sometimes they turn in a different direction and just maintaining that commitment is so important and you've just celebrated 50 years together, so clearly, you're doing something right. Thank you both so much for sharing your story.
Ed Haines: Yep, thank you.
Elgie Dow: Thank you, Ricky.
Jan Dow: You're welcome.
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