New research reveals older blind UK veterans feel increasingly isolated following sight loss

16 December 2016

For the first time ever Blind Veterans UK has revealed the extent of feelings of isolation among older ex-Service men and women with severe sight loss. This Christmas, with the support of Dame Barbara Windsor DBE, the charity is calling out to all veterans who are still battling sight loss alone, in the hope of helping even more veterans back to independence.

Blind Veterans UK’s Isolation Survey 2016, released today, was commissioned to identify any feelings of isolation among the UK’s blind veteran population. 61 per cent said that before receiving support from Blind Veterans UK they had become increasingly isolated following a diagnosis of sight loss. The findings overwhelmingly indicate the need for specialist support for this group, who, in the charity’s experience, take great pride in their independence and may be less likely to ask for help. After receiving the charity’s support, 86 per cent of respondents said that it had helped them to feel less isolated, and more than two-thirds (71 per cent) reported it had increased their independence, with three quarters (75 per cent) saying it helped them make new friends/ acquaintances.

An estimated 59,000 blind veterans are eligible for the charity’s support, but most are currently not receiving it.

Blind Navy veteran Andrew Hussey who lost his sight on Christmas Eve 2007 has given his support to the findings. “I wholeheartedly agree with the findings of the Blind Veteran’s UK Isolation Survey 2016. I just wish more vision-impaired veterans knew about the support available and that there is no need to try and cope alone.”

This time of year is particularly poignant for Andrew, who was first diagnosed with macular degeneration in 2004. His eyesight gradually deteriorated, until on Christmas Eve in 2007, when he was watching television, it got drastically worse. He was registered blind soon after. Tragically, his wife of 46 years, Alma also died just over a year later, in January 2008. It came as a double blow when Andrew was still struggling to come to terms with his sight loss.

Andrew said, “I was completely devastated at losing my sight, and things got even worse when my wife passed away. I had never felt so alone in my life. I thought there was no hope for me and I became anxious and withdrawn. I felt that I had become invisible and inadequate, and didn’t like asking people for help to do things which I could have done easily before. My military life taught be to be extremely independent and active and the thought of becoming dependent on someone else, even family, was too much to bear.”

Andrew joined the Navy when he was just 15 years old as a Boy Seaman. In Oct 1953 he qualified as a Boy Seaman 1st Class. He spent 18 months in the Far East on the destroyer HMS Comus, witnessed the A-bomb on Christmas Island and visited Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand and other countries. He served in HMS Blackpool in the Mediterranean and spent some time in UK waters, the Atlantic and Arctic waters. He completed his service as an Able Seaman in March 1962 and moved ashore to London to marry his wife, Alma, the next year in 1963.

Fortunately, one of Andrew’s comrades told him about Blind Veterans UK and explained that as an ex-Service man, he was eligible for its support, irrespective of the cause of his sight loss. Soon after registering for its free support, he spent an induction week at its training and rehabilitation centre in Brighton and immediately things started to improve.

Andrew also benefits from the lunch clubs and reunions the charity offers, and even takes part in activity courses such as rifle shooting and archery. He has gained the confidence to get involved with some of his old pursuits, such as sailing, and now leads a full and active life. Andrew said, “I’m so grateful to Blind Veterans UK for giving me the skills and confidence to help rebuild my life. They taught me how to live as a blind person and were there for me when I didn’t know who to ask for advice. I now live a very independent life but it gives me great comfort to know that they are always there.”

As the 10th anniversary of his sight loss draws closer, Andrew will be joining other blind veterans at a Christmas lunch in Marylebone on Monday 12 December. Charity supporter Dame Barbara Windsor DBE will be in attendance and said “No one who has Served our country should have to battle sight loss alone. This December, Blind Veterans UK is reaching out to anyone who has previously Served in the Armed Forces or done National Service and may be feeling particularly isolated since losing their sight. Events like the Christmas lunch are so important in helping to bring veterans together and I am very proud to be involved with it.”

Andrew said: “I’m looking forward to the Christmas lunch, but the best bit will be meeting up with the other veterans and sharing a few stories. I find military people have a connection that’s quite different from civvies and it’s lovely to be able to be among them again.”

Fran McSweeney, Community Services Manager, of Blind Veterans UK said, “We know from over 100 years of experience of working with veterans that many of them enjoyed full and busy lives in the forces. Later in life, many of them miss the independence and camaraderie that they experienced before, and a diagnosis of sight loss makes this much harder.

“Blind Veterans UK’s Isolation Survey 2016 has provided us with invaluable insight. It is reassuring that once blind veterans start receiving support from us they feel much less isolated, and it has also allowed us to address some of the day to day issues our beneficiaries face. For example, the research found that less than 1 in 7 of our beneficiaries felt able to travel long distances alone for events and activities which is why we are looking into reviewing our services to local communities, making our support accessible to all.