Still Game star and Royal Navy veteran James Martin has shared his own experiences of living with age-related sight loss to raise awareness of the support available to veterans with sight loss in Scotland.
The actor, who played fan favourite Eric in the much-loved sitcom Still Game and who turns 90 in March, was diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration over a decade ago – an eye disease which affects central vision and for which there is currently no cure.
With his deteriorating sight making it difficult for him to recognise faces and read, James got in touch with Sight Scotland Veterans in 2019 after learning of the charity at a veterans event.
James proudly served in the Royal Navy prior to embarking on his 40-year acting career, having joined up in 1949 aged 17 and serving seven years, then five years with the reserves.
With his sight loss and service background making him eligible for Sight Scotland Veterans’ support, the charity has provided James with specialist equipment and expert advice that has helped him ‘regain his independence’.
And he describes Sight Scotland Veterans’ offering as “incredible” as the charity strives to reach out to even more veterans with sight loss in Scotland, with its first ever TV advert campaign live this month.
James, who was born and bred in Glasgow and is now based in Musselburgh, said: “I had never heard of macular degeneration when I was diagnosed and had thought there’d be something to cure it, but soon found out that there isn’t currently.
“My sight loss was very gradual, but I started to realise my central vision wasn’t as good as it should be and I couldn’t recognise faces – I now have to go by recognising voices. It was a funny thing. I can see all around me but when I try to pinpoint things in the middle of my vision it’s blurred.
“It’s mainly impacted my reading – I used to be a prolific reader but now due to my sight loss I find it a chore. I think recently it’s slowly got a little bit worse. I hope it’s reached its peak.
“I’d had no other support for my sight loss at all prior to joining Sight Scotland Veterans. The charity has been wonderful. The things I’ve been provided with to aid me are incredible. They’ve sourced me a talking watch and specialist lighting for reading. It just gives you your independence back. I love my cups of coffee, and one of my favourite things is a gadget that vibrates to let me know when the water has reached the top of the mug.”
Sight Scotland Veterans also sourced a Synapptic tablet for James, which features software designed for people with sight loss. Before the pandemic set in, James attended one of the charity’s activity hubs for veterans with sight loss – the Linburn Centre in Wilkieston, West Lothian – for some digital training.
James said: “They were very good at the centre and when the restrictions allow and the centre reopens I’d like to get back there to do some more training on the tablet.”
Prior to the pandemic, Sight Scotland Veterans met with veterans with sight loss face to face with home visits and organised events. Since pandemic restrictions came into force its staff have adapted to continue providing support remotely via telephone and email, including expert rehabilitation assessments and training, and posting out specialist equipment to home addresses.
James still hears from his Sight Scotland Veterans Outreach Worker, Dawn Smith, with regular phone calls, and he has commended the camaraderie of the veterans charity as it rallies round to keep on supporting veterans with sight loss through the pandemic.
“Talk about kindred spirits – it’s quite like that with my outreach worker Dawn,” said James. “Throughout the pandemic she’s been giving me a call to check in and I can give her a call too. She understands the challenges of sight loss and it makes a difference to have someone there who knows about the impact.
“Sometimes when you talk to people and say you’ve got macular degeneration they’ll say, ‘what’s that?’ But Sight Scotland Veterans know what macular degeneration is all about. Having the support of the charity there, you’re talking to people who understand and can help you to adapt to life with sight loss.”
As President of the Royal Naval Association in Edinburgh, the busy veteran is determined not to let his sight loss get in the way of keeping active, and he still works out every day.
And he is calling on fellow veterans with sight loss in Scotland to take the brave step of reaching out for support to adapt to life with sight loss, with Sight Scotland Veterans still welcoming enquiries from veterans to access its support in lockdown.
James said: “People can feel wary of reaching out for support, but I would recommend any veteran affected by sight loss to get in touch with Sight Scotland Veterans. There is help out there. For me, the benefits have been companionship, that feeling of kindred spirits with the staff, and all the gadgets they’ve been able to provide. It’s really been helpful. I have fond memories of the camaraderie of serving in the Navy and that feeling is there with Sight Scotland Veterans too.”
Mark O’Donnell, Chief Executive of Sight Scotland Veterans, said: “It’s fantastic to hear of the impact Sight Scotland Veterans has had for James. The majority of the veterans we support today have sight loss due to age-related conditions such as macular degeneration, like James, or as a result of an accident or illness.
“We know there are thousands more veterans with sight loss in Scotland, including those who served National Service, who are eligible for Sight Scotland Veterans’ support. Following much research and consultation, the charity changed its name from Scottish War Blinded to Sight Scotland Veterans in October last year, to support our goal of reaching out to even more veterans with sight loss and this month we have launched our first ever television campaign.
“Despite the current restrictions there is still a lot the charity is able offer remotely. Whether it’s specialist equipment, expert practical advice to adapt to life with sight loss or a friendly, listening ear through these challenging times, our dedicated staff continue to provide vital support to individuals.
“If you are a veteran with sight loss, or you know a veteran you think we could help, we would love to hear from you. We’re providing support in any way we can as restrictions continue, and we look forward to the day we can recommence our support face-to-face along with our social activities and events across Scotland.”