I noticed the house smelled smoky when I walked through the front door, but didn’t think much about it. After all, it was Easter Sunday, and it isn’t uncommon for someone to spill something on a burner, or in the oven while they’re cooking. What was unusual, though, was finding my mom, a piece of broccoli in one hand, waving a spoon with the other. Words were coming quickly, and sentences short. It took a minute for me to piece together that they’d had a skillet fire earlier that morning, the alarms were sounded, ADT called to verify the emergency; when neither answered, the fire department was dispatched. Mom couldn’t hear her phone because of the alarms. Dad couldn’t hear the calls because he couldn’t hear – even with his hearing aids.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 2 percent of the population of adults aged 45 – 54 have hearing loss. Jump up to the next category of 55 – 64 and it increases to 8.5 percent. Beyond that, to 65-74, it multiplies to 25%, and by age 75, it is a whopping 50% of the population having totally disabling hearing loss. Even worse to me, is that 28.8 million American adults could benefit from hearing aids, yet only 1 in 3 of adults 70 and older actually use them. Even fewer, 16 percent of adults, ages 20 – 69, who need them, have ever used them.
Seniors tell me they avoid social gatherings, decline dinner invitations, stop watching their favorite television shows, stop attending church, and even isolate themselves altogether because it is physically and emotionally straining to hear what is being said. They worry that they will respond inappropriately during discussions, creating confusion, or worse … conflict, so they simply no longer participate. As you may have guessed, this can have a serious impact on one’s mental well-being. Studies have shown that the isolation associated with hearing loss results in loneliness and depression. Additionally, according to an article published by Johns Hopkins Medicine, there’s a link between hearing loss and dementia. In fact, the likelihood for dementia doubled with mild hearing loss, tripled for moderate, and increased by 5 times for those with severe hearing loss.
Not only does hearing loss have a serious psychological impact, it can have critical safety implications, as well. A couple of years ago, I met my grandparents for lunch. It was storm season, and just as we finished eating, the tornado sirens blared. I thought Granddad stood up to move further away from windows, but he was preparing to leave to finish their errands. I told him, from the sound of things, I didn’t think it wise to leave until all the weather passed. He had no idea what I was talking about! When I asked him why he’d venture out with the tornado sirens going, he told me he hadn’t heard any! I was terrified for them. A wave of realization washed through me – he couldn’t hear sirens; that meant he couldn’t hear car horns, emergency vehicles when he drove, or doctors or pharmacists explaining critical instructions. I immediately launched a persuasive attack on the necessity of seeing his doctor and investigating hearing aids!
Not all hearing loss is due to age. It may be due to medications, illness, injury, noise exposure, even genetics. Some early signs to look for could be realizing you can no longer hear what’s being said, but you’re struggling to understand it – some words are unclear, or maybe just certain pitches. Other symptoms could be struggling to hear conversations in crowds, ringing in the ears, finding yourself straining to hear, or noticing you’ve turned the volume up more and more on your television. You may even notice you don’t hear everyday sounds, like the wind blowing, or the creeks of your floor. As soon as you have even the slightest suspicion you may have something wrong with your hearing, see a physician. Studies show that the average person waits 10 years before addressing their hearing loss. The earlier you identify a problem, the less negative impact it can have, not just on your quality of life, but also on your brain’s ability to comprehend speech.
So you’ve identified you have trouble hearing, and your medical professional has identified your particular type – what now? An article by the Cleveland Clinic shared some suggestions!
Hearing aids – if you don’t know where to start, ask someone who has already navigated that world and is pleased with their outcome;
Assistive listening devices – by the way, some health care providers may be able to provide one during your visit if you request it;
Medications, depending on the cause of your hearing loss;
Surgery, for example, Cochlear implants (surgically implanted devices);
Audiological rehabilitation that can retrain your brain to interpret communication, and also teach you to use your assistive devices;
You may need a combination of these, for example, an illness can cause your hearing aids to be temporarily less effective, but with medication, your hearing may be restored to the level it was prior to the onset.
You’ve been proactive and sought help, now it’s time to advocate for yourself with those with whom you engage, whether that’s your loved ones, your healthcare providers, or the person at the checkout counter at the grocery! Start by letting them know you’re hard of hearing, then coach them through the ways they can best help you understand what they are saying.
If you care for someone who is hard of hearing, there are several ways you can help ensure they have the best possible experience. Start by having an honest conversation about what it’s like to have hearing loss. Have them explain their condition and ask what they would like you to do for them. Offer to attend medical appointments, if needed. Ask if it’s okay for you to translate for them in conversations where they display communication challenges. If dining out is part of your things-to-do list, choose places with less background noise and sit closer together. Face the person when speaking to them so that they can read your lips and use your expressions to provide clues. Use simple sentences with key phrases. Instead of speaking louder when told they didn’t hear you, rephrase. Often, it isn’t the loudness of your voice, but the actual words they aren’t understanding. Speak slowly and clearly in your natural tone and volume. I’ve found that dropping my voice pitch helps some hear me better since my voice is naturally high. Lastly, be patient – don’t give up and say, “Never mind.” This frustrates and builds barriers to communication.
So here we are, surrounded by those marvelous sounds of the season – chirping birds, children laughing, porch music, the crack of a bat connecting with a perfect pitch, and soft river waves licking the bank. Add to those the contrasting, life-saving sounds of a screaming smoke detector, emergency vehicle sirens, and threatening weather alarms. Keep in mind that others may not be as fortunate to hear them, and do what you can to ease the burden for you and for them. OL