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In honour of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we spoke to Dr Marianne Coleman. Dr Coleman is currently researching breaking down barriers to accessing dementia-friendly eyecare, which has been made possible by a Dementia Australia Research Foundation – Victoria Project Grant.
Can you please briefly describe your background?
I am an orthoptist (which means ‘straight eyes’). Orthoptists are clinical eyecare professionals and we provide care to all ages. We specialise in diagnosing and treating problems with moving your eyes and using them together as a pair to judge distances. We are a small profession – there are about 12 optometrists for every orthoptist in Australia! Many people don’t know what an orthoptist is, until they need one. If you develop double vision, you may end up seeing someone like me for help! I now work as a Clinical Vision Research Fellow between the University of Melbourne and the Australian College of Optometry’s National Vision Research Institute. I did my clinical and research training in the UK, and moved to Australia in July 2020, during the pandemic. I wrote part of my application to the Dementia Australia Research Foundation while in hotel quarantine!
What sparked your interest in researching dementia?
The chances of having difficulties with our eyesight can increase as we get older, including our ability to use their eyes together as a pair. This affects depth perception, increasing risk of falling. I saw and treated many older people for these kinds of problems during my previous hospital work, yet few of them had dementia. In the UK, you usually can’t access an orthoptist without a referral from somewhere. So where were all these people with dementia? Were their eyecare needs being met? I started looking into it and discovered that there wasn’t much research about eyesight and eyecare for people living with dementia. There was even less research about things like depth perception, despite problems with this being a commonly cited aspect of living with dementia. This is how I first got started in the world of dementia research.
In what ways do you hope your research will impact people living with dementia in the future?
I hope it will help people living with dementia to feel supported when they have their eyes tested. They can see an eyecare professional who knows about dementia, and ways the eye test can be adapted to accommodate individual needs. I hope this will help carers too, that they know what they can expect from the eye test. If we can establish what a dementia-friendly eye test should look like, then it’s easier to make the case to the government to provide funding to support things like longer appointments, home visits or quick yet informative imaging tests. My dream research impact would be the creation of a dedicated, fully funded Medicare schedule code for dementia-friendly eye tests! If we make it easy for everyone to get tested, then people living with dementia can access eyecare easily, and enjoy the best eyesight they can have for as long as possible.
When our research is complete, we will launch a training course for optometrists to support their delivery of dementia-friendly eyecare. We will also provide information for people living with dementia and carers about eye tests and following eye care advice at home. The exact format and content of these will depend on both the findings of our research and engagement with Dementia Advocates, so watch this space! We have had support from Dementia Advocates at every stage of the research. Their input ensures we carry out the research sensitively and compassionately, and that the messages from the research are helpful and clear for people living with dementia and carers.
This project is supported though a Dementia Australia Research Foundation – Victoria Project Grant, funded by Lucas’ Papaw Remedies and Susan Bannatyne. Volunteers are currently being recruited for this study, to learn more about how to get involved visit: www.dementia.org.au/research/participate/study/improving-eye-tests-people-living-dementia.
To learn about the latest research programs that have received funding through the Dementia Australia Research Foundation visit: www.dementia.org.au/research.
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