Dec 13, 2012

Tunnel Vision in Alzheimer's and Related Dementia

They experience tunnel vision not because there is anything wrong with their eyes, but because their brain is damaged in the area that receives the signals from our peripheral vision.

Tunnel Vision
By Carole Larkin
Alzheimer's Reading Room

This is not a well known fact, but many people with a dementia are affected with something that works like what we call tunnel vision. This tunnel vision can affect their thoughts and behavior.

We are going to do something interactive here folks. I want you to do this. Seriously. Do this.

Make a circle with your thumb and first finger of both hands and put both hands up to your eyes. (Take your glasses off first please.) Notice that your peripheral vision is gone. You are looking through a tunnel. You can see straight ahead of you, but can’t see above or below you, or to either side of you. Right?

Stand up. That’s right. Stand up, still with your fingers in a circle around your eyes. Feel a little unbalanced? You should. Take 5 steps looking straight ahead. DON’T LOOK DOWN AT THE FLOOR. Notice how unsure you are in your walking? It’s perfectly natural for you to be unsure because guess what? You can’t see where you are going! Pretty scary. Right?

Now turn around and walk the 5 steps back to your chair with your fingers still in a circle around your eyes. This time, look down at the floor. Better. Right? You can see where you are going and you feel more secure.

Have a seat, put your hands down (put on your glasses). The interactive part is over.

What you just experienced is a taste of what many people who have a dementia experience all day every day.

Tunnel vision.

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They experience it not because there is anything wrong with their eyes, but because their brain is damaged in the area that receives the signals from our peripheral vision. So they can’t see anything except straight ahead without making the conscious effort to move their head instead of their eyes to see. Because cognitive illness can take away the executive function of planning and knowing cause and effect, many people will not know to move their head to see the bigger picture in front of them.

This tunnel vision can affect many things in their lives. Think about it. Ever wonder why so many people with dementia (and do not have the hunched back from osteoporosis) walk slowly and with their head down, looking at the floor? Now you know. There’s a logical reason for it. They can’t see where their walking without doing this. Not seeing and having unsure footing naturally causes fear of falling, something we all don’t want to happen. What happens when you are fearful of falling? You move slowing and carefully, trying to keep your balance at all times. There you have it. A logical reason for the way they walk.

Problems with Balance, Walking, Falling Can Be an Early Sign of Dementia

Think about how the tunnel vision affects other things in life. They put things down somewhere and then accuse people of stealing it or moving it. Why? Because if they don’t move their heads, they can’t see it! If they can’t see it, it’s obviously not there. If it’s not there, and they don’t remember putting it down ( which of course they don’t) due to short term memory loss and lack of attention to what actions they take; then logically it’s gone and they had nothing to do with it. See? That’s how that happens.

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. That’s why professionals say, if you want to stop wandering out of the house, try a deadbolt above or below eyesight on the front and back doors. Or maybe a stop sign at eye level could work. The important thing is now you know why it could work; you can use this knowledge to make the environment friendlier and safer for your loved one.

Carole Larkin MA, CMC, CAEd, DCP, QDCS, EICS is an expert in Alzheimer’s and related Dementias care and is a Certified Trainer/Facilitator of the Virtual Dementia Tour Experience. She also is a Certified Geriatric Care Manager who specializes in helping families with Alzheimer’s and related dementias issues. She consults with families via telephone nationwide on problems related to the Dementias. Her company, ThirdAge Services LLC, is located in Dallas, TX, and her website is

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Original content Bob DeMarco, the Alzheimer's Reading Room