Hearing loss affects not only the elderly but a large portion of the population and is frustrating for everyone. Because it interferes with their ability to communicate, those that are hard of hearing often feel cut off from the world around them. This is especially true of older adults who are often isolated due to mobility or transportation problems Not only is it frustrating and annoying but it can be dangerous since they may not hear smoke detectors going off, sirens, horns, barking dogs or other auditory warnings.
In the past older people were reluctant to wear hearing aids. They were large and magnified everything, including annoying background noises that we normally tune out. Today’s hearing aides are lighter, smaller and the quality has improved greatly. If you notice your parent is turning the television up louder and asking you to repeat things more, have their hearing checked out. They may just have a buildup of ear wax, an infection or some other obstruction. If that isn’t the case, your next step is to have an audiologist evaluate them.
Most complaints that people with hearing loss have is that people mumble. Speaking louder is not the answer, they can hear you but they just do not understand what you are saying. Clarity is the problem. Certain tones, usually high-pitched ones, are fuzzy. Some consonants such as “f”, “s”, and “z” may sound the same. Background noise may be harder to filter. My grandma complained of not being able to hear if there were a bunch of people in the room or if the television was on. People with a higher pitched voice were hard for her to understand. This type of hearing loss is known as nerve deafness.
Another problem is constant ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus. It may also manifest as a clicking, buzzing, or hissing sound and it can be much more than annoying. It can make hearing almost impossible. There are many causes such as some medications, illness, allergies and of course listening to loud music. Well, any loud noise over time, such as running machinery or gun fire. Talk with an audiologist about options to reduce the annoyance. It usually involves using white noise in some manner to mask the constant sound.
When talking with a parent who is hard of hearing, do not yell. Stand or sit in front of them and face them. We all do a certain amount of lip-reading anyway, but those who are hard of hearing often depend on seeing the movement of your mouth and facial expressions for understanding. Keep your hands away from your face. Turn off the television, radio, running water or any other background noise if possible.
Enunciate clearly but without exaggerating the mouth movement. Speak up, but do not shout or raise the pitch of your voice. If anything, lower it slightly. Do not talk with gum or food in your mouth or while trying to smoke. Use simple and direct sentences. If you are asked to repeat something, rephrase it. Using different words may be easier to understand. Use body language and facial expression appropriately, smiling, touching, pointing, nodding. When eating out, go at an off hour or pick the quietest part of the restaurant to reduce background noise.
In addition to an audiologist, you might want to consult with a speech therapist. They have all kinds of tips that may be useful.
Besides gadgets that amplify sounds on things such as the phone, alarms, etc., consider also using instruments that provide visual clues such as flashing lights. At the very least, make sure your parent one can hear smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detector alarms. Televisions usually have the ability to print text along the bottom of the screen and most stations provide closed captioning.
Hearing aids can be quite expensive and you will not know how well they will work until you try them for a while. There will be a period of adjustment. Few insurance companies will pay for more than the cost of testing. There are civic organizations that will help. Contact the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing for a list of organizations that offer financial assistance. You can also call Self Help for the Hard of Hearing @ 301-657-2248 and they can give you a list of organizations in your area that offer help. You might also want to contact the Council on Aging, Senior Citizens Organization and other community, civic and spiritual organizations in your area.
Sometimes the simplest devices are the best. I knew a lady, whom everyone called Granny G, who had tried several hearing aids with limited success. One day she saw an ad for a device you wear around your neck that amplified sound and you put ear buds in your ear. It was similar to a Walkman (for those of us old enough to remember those). She loved it and swore it was better than all her hearing aids. She showed it to everyone and several of her friends ended up getting one.
While eating at an out-of-town restaurant one evening, a man approached her table and asked her about the device hanging around her neck. It seems his wife was hard of hearing and they had tried everything with limited success. Granny G immediately took it off went over to his wife and had her try it. The wife’s face lit up! She could hear! Her husband was amazed and very grateful. This little box that cost about twenty dollars worked better than some very expensive equipment he had tried. It turns out he was an ENT (ear, nose and throat specialist). That really tickled Granny G. She didn’t get too many opportunities to teach a doctor something!
Besides approaching strangers when out in public, there are other resources available to you. These include American Speech-Language-Hearing Association; Self Help for Hard of Hearing, American Tinnitus Association; National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders; American Academy of Audiology; American Academy of Otolaryngolgy-Head and Neck Surgery
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