Friday, 28 November 2014

Gardening in Varifocals

Last year I was told by my optician that I would have to start wearing varifocals, which induced a bit of drama-queen panic ("omg I'd OLD!!") and which raised the question, would it affect my working in gardens?

To my surprise, there was nothing on the internet about it. I googled "gardening in varifocals" and there was nothing at all.  I got a lot of information about varifocals, and a lot of pages of complaints, but nothing specifically about gardening.

Later that week, at Book Club, I asked the other members if any of them were varifocalled - unlike bi-focals, you can't see it in the lenses, more of that in a moment - and two of them were. One gave me the usual tales of falling up and down stairs, the other said the varifocals were great in normal life, but she couldn't garden in them other than on the flat parts of her garden: she said it was impossible to work on her steep rockery, as she kept thinking she was going to fall off.

Not very encouraging, eh?

Specsavers assured me that if I couldn't get on with the varifocals, they would change them for either bi-focals, or two pairs of specs, one for distance, one for reading, at no charge. So I went ahead.

Now, if you are reading this post, you must by definition have a bit of interest in the subject, so I'll quickly explain exactly what varifocals are.

Firstly, you know what normal specs do - they are lenses that go in front of your eyes, they compensate for your own eyes' shortcomings, and present your eyes with a tweaked version of reality which, when it gets to your brain, is perfectly in focus.

At some point, as your vision changes over time, you reach a point where you can see the distance clearly, but you can't see close-up any more, so you end up with two pairs of glasses: one for distance, one for reading, which can be a bit of pain.

So to make bi-focals. the optical laboratory take your distance glasses, then insert a small piece of your reading glasses at the bottom, so you look through the top in normal use, and look through the insert to read. Two pairs in one!

They are clearly visible from the outside, as little half-moon shapes within the lenses (right).

For varifocals, the laboratory "smooth out" the join between the insert and the main lens,  and there is in fact a third zone at the top of the half-moon, which is part-way between distance and reading.

This means that you get three pairs in one!

The benefits are that you don't have a visual "jump" between one lens and the other, and the third zone is perfect for computer use, which is not as close as you hold a book, but is too close to be seen through the distance lens.

Some people don't like the fact that others can immediately see that you have bi-focals: it's a vanity thing for them, so they like varifocals because they look just like normal specs.

The problems with varifocals are much the same as those you get with bi-focals, ie adjusting to the change. Common problems are stairs - you look ahead at the stairs, which is fine, but then when you glance down to see where your feet are going, you are suddenly looking through the reading lens, which means they appear to be a lot closer. Other people complain of things swinging towards them and away from them as they move their eyes up and down: also there is the "nodding dog" phenomenon that you often see with people wearing bi-focals, as they tilt their head up and down to get the object they are looking at into the right zone of their lenses.

I'd read all about these, I'd heard many horror stories from friends (and from complete strangers, I'll talk to anyone) about how long it took to adjust: some people take weeks, one friend said it took her three months to get used to them.

All this was quite worrying. Then I talked to one lady who said briskly that it took her just 20 minutes to get used to them, and that they were wonderful.

At last! Something positive.

A week later, I collected my new specs, declined to wear them straight out of the shop, but instead took them home and waited for the weekend. After all those stories of stumbling around, headaches, and so on, I thought it would be better to try them out while not having to work and drive....

I put them on, and went out for a walk. At the very first kerb I did a massive mis-step and wobbled around with one foot in the air, feeling silly: by the end of the road I'd forgotten I was wearing them, and took the kerb without thinking. Half an hour later, I'd completely forgotten about them, apart from the pains in the nose and behind the ears that I always get with new specs.

Brilliant is the word I would use for varifocals. Absolutely bloody brilliant. I can see number plates from miles away, I can read road signs long before I get to them, I can see the individual leaves on the trees, and I can still read my watch, my phone, my books, the computer, the dashboard of the car etc, all with one pair of glasses.

So, how about the gardening, then?

In general, no problem at all. I don't find that steps disappear, I don't find things swimming in and out of view, I clamber up and down steep banks with no more problem than ever before, I use all sorts of steps, and I can read labels and packets with ease.

However, there are one or two oddities about varifocals that are worth mentioning.

Firstly, it's a lot easier to turn your head than to swivel your eyes round - although this might be because I have a high prescription, which means my lenses are quite thick. I find that when crossing roads on foot, I do now tend to look right over my shoulder rather than just a quick glance. One person had mentioned this - she said "you can no longer scan a room, you have to look at each thing individually" which didn't make sense when she said it, but now I can see what she meant. This does not mean that I look like an owl, just that I'm getting a little more neck exercise than I used to. And as I said, I think this is more to do with my high prescription than with the varifocals.

Secondly, I have learned to accept that good light is now more important for reading, and this is part of getting older. It's easy to blame the specs, when really all you need is a better light. I now have a super-bright kitchen with LED spotlights instead of the old single hanging bulb, and it's much easier to prepare food etc.

Finally, there is one odd position that gardeners get into that causes a problem: when you are bending right over, it's not possible to read or see small details because your neck won't bend up like a flamingo.  As I have a "bad" knee, I rarely kneel down on the ground, I usually just bend right over and work half-upside-down, and I have found that in some situations, I can't clearly see the base of the plant. This is a small price to pay, and I have learned to adjust my position by either kneeling on one knee, or by crouching momentarily.

It's the same problem I have reading the gas meter, which is in a cupboard at ground level: I have to crouch down to get close to it, then I find I'm looking through the distance zone instead of the reading zone. This was quite a puzzle at first: in the end I found that shining a torch on the dial helped, by increasing the light level.

So on balance, I would say that if you are about to plunge into bi-focal or varifocal life, and you are concerned about it (for gardening, or just for normal life), then fear not, it's not as bad as it sounds. People are always very vocal when things go wrong, which is why the internet is full of horror stories, whereas people who are happy with things, ie the vast majority, don't feel moved to get on the internet and talk about it.

My personal advice would be to get a friend to hold your hand or your arm the first time you go out for a walk in the new glasses, and to distract you with conversation about the weather, so that you don't "think" about them. Just get out there and do it, relax, and hopefully you will find it as easy to adjust to them as I did.

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