United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Sports Put A Spark into Lives of Blind, Low-Vision Vets
Veteran Elmer Doege competes in the Golden Age Games in 2009. "I know where the pins are!"
Veteran Elmer Doege competes in the Golden Age Games in 2009. "I know where the pins are!"

Patti Beck-Weaver was originally hired at the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System to help blind and low-vision Veterans learn to use magnifiers and other vision aids. Gradually, she realized eyesight wasn't the Veterans' biggest problem.

"It's very isolated, very rural out here," Beck-Weaver said. "Veterans don't have a lot of options in these sparsely populated towns." Not only were the Veterans geographically isolated, but their blindness left them feeling vulnerable and cut off from society.

"I noticed there was a high level of depression," said Beck-Weaver. "There were a lot of tears. Many spouses wanted to leave."

Working with city and state officials and recreation therapists, Patti established a weekly blind and low-vision sports rehabilitation program which included bowling, bocce ball, shuffleboard, horseshoes, and golf. Blind Veterans suddenly had a world of opportunity open to them.

Beck-Weaver noted that many Veterans are able to include their spouses and other family members by inviting them to the sporting events.

"A Reason to Get Up and Go"

Sports are adapted to fit the needs of the athletes and allow Sierra Nevada athletes to improve their game when they practice.

In bowling, athletes can judge their next move through vocal cues by assistants who let them know the location of the pins that are left and how many are still standing. The game of horseshoes is modified by shortening the length of the court and integrating verbal cues. "We have some unbelievable horseshoe players who are legally blind," said Beck-Weaver. The bocce ball court is similarly shortened, with players using colorful sand-filled bocce balls.

"Some people who have lost their sight isolate themselves," said participant Art Marr. "The program gives them a reason to get up and go."

Marr, a self-described "tweener" - someone who served in between the Korean War and the Vietnam War - has found companionship with Veterans of another generation. "I met some neat World War II Vets I've become good friends with," he said. "We get a lot of discussion back and forth."

In addition to practices and competitions, Veterans can attend a monthly support group and social outings, including picnics and field trips to the National Automobile Museum, the Donner Memorial, and a mansion in Virginia City. "Patti keeps us pretty active," said Marr.

"Are We There Yet?"

Vans from the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization and the VA's Voluntary Service ensure that rural Veterans never have to miss practice. Ted Chaffee is an Army Veteran who lives in a log house outside of Reno. He relies on a DAV van every Tuesday to make it to the program. "Are we there yet?", Chaffee likes to rib the driver.

Chaffee, a member of the group for more than three years, says being with his teammates is the best part of his week. "We're all real happy to be together," he said. "It's more fun than anything else."

From Isolation to Traveling the U.S.

In addition to the weekly practice sessions, Veterans can also participate in VA winter sports clinics and a competition called the Golden Age Games if they are medically fit to travel. The games are held in a different U.S. city every year.

Elmer Doege, 86, has taken home more trophies than he can count from the games. "I try to pick up two medals a year," he said. "I give Patti all the credit in the world for what she's done for us."

Doege is a dedicated lifelong bowler who used to coach bowling teams in the 1970s. He relies on this expertise as part of the VA's "High Rollers" bowling team now that he's lost most of his sight to macular degeneration and glaucoma.

"People ask me, 'How do you bowl when you're blind?' I say, 'That's easy! I know where the pins are set,'" said Doege.

"This is one of the best things going on at the VA for Veterans," he added.

"The program has been life-changing," said Beck-Weaver. "Most of these Vets were depressed before. The sports clinic has brought them together."

By Stephanie Strauss, VA Staff Writer