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Patricia Watson. Photo: ANU, Jack Fox

Facial recognition challenges isolating those with macular degeneration

“Hello, Pat. It’s Judy.”

That’s how Patricia Watson’s sister greeted her when the two unexpectedly crossed paths at the shops.

Watson lives with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) which, as Dr Jo Lane from Australian National University’s Research School of Population Health explains, results in difficulty with facial recognition.

“My daughter sees me every afternoon after work and I can’t see her face,” Watson says.

“I can’t go shopping alone. People who know me know I can’t see them and come up and say, ‘It’s Jane, good to see you,’ and that’s hugely helpful. But you can’t help feeling sad that they have to tell you who they are.”

Lane’s research shows that Watson isn’t alone, with AMD causing loneliness and reducing quality of life and confidence.

Published in PLOS One, the study found that those living with the common eye disorder are withdrawing from all sorts of social situations because they can’t see faces.

“Living with AMD can be very lonely,” Lane says. “One woman we spoke to couldn’t recognise her son when she answered the door.

“There is a lot of embarrassment about not being able to recognise your family members, friends or people in the community. People can get offended because they think you are being rude or not being friendly.”

Watson, who was diagnosed with AMD seven years ago, says she has given up on socialising.

“You can see by people’s faces if people want to speak with you or not, but when you can’t see their face, you just don’t bother engaging.

“My husband told me I’d talk to a cardboard box if I could. I used to talk to people in queues, and when I was able to travel by bus, I’d talk to people at bus stops. Now, I don’t.

“I would never engage a person in conversation now because I can’t see them.”

To help combat the issues, Lane, with input from the Macular Disease Foundation Australia, designed community resources for people living with AMD, family, friends and carers.

They include common mistakes with face perception and helpful tips to make life better for people with AMD.

“Things like describing who you are before speaking to someone, or letting the person with AMD know who is in a room – even with mild AMD – can make the world of difference,” Lane says.

Click for ANU’s AMD brochure, info sheet and conversation starter.

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