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Managing a life with hearing loss

by Kathryn Kilpatrick

With at least 38 million of American adults experiencing hearing loss, it is likely that every day you may be communicating with someone who does not hear very well. Consider some of these strategies to improve overall communication whether you are the hard of hearing person or the one speaking to someone with a hearing loss.

As we look back on our lifestyles when we were growing up, hindsight is surely 20-20 when it comes to hearing loss. Many of us have enjoyed amazing concerts, sometimes followed by a temporary hearing loss. Then, there are those of us who have been exposed at our jobs or recreational activities to loud noises, often without the ear protection awareness that we have today. If we look at the population over age 65, there are approximately 30 % of them with a hearing impairment, and it reaches almost 50% after the age of 75.

The Environment We Live in Everyday

The level of normal conversation is about 60 decibels, but we are constantly exposed to noises such as heavy traffic in a city, a motorcycle, snowmobile, wood shop activities, rock concerts, ambulance sirens, or even firecrackers. These are all above 85 up to 160 decibels. If prolonged exposure to noise at the level of 85 decibels can cause a gradual hearing loss, we need to be more aware of why we need to protect our hearing from this point on and to help the younger generations learn the implications of some of their lifestyle choices. More than 30 million Americans are exposed to hazardous noise levels on a regular basis. How many of us are taking the necessary precautions so that we will not damage our hearing even further?

First of all, as a speech and language pathologist, I would like to suggest that you check out a very comprehensive resource found at the website of the American Speech and Hearing Association for information on other causes of hearing loss, on hearing aids, and pertinent articles. Visit Listen To Your Buds if you would like to increase your knowledge of the impact of certain environments on your hearing. It's a good way to pass this information along to the younger generations. Listen To Your Buds is a consumer awareness campaign by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association about the potential risk of hearing loss from unsafe usage of personal audio equipment.

When Hearing is a Problem

If someone does not hear well, each of us could offer assistance by understanding that it is going to be necessary to change how we communicate with this person. It is a real challenge to do this when many of us are on automatic pilot, sometimes talking too fast and not clear enough to be understood. Older adults frequently complain that much of the media information and telephone messages on answering machines are not geared to the hearing impaired population.

I clearly remember when a friend got quite upset that her mother's car had been towed from the parking lot of her senior residence. When the situation was looked into, the daughter learned that there had been a general announcement at a gathering that the residents' cars had to be moved by noon the next day for resurfacing. Her mom and several others missed the announcement and this woman ended up learning that her car had been towed when she went to get it to run some errands a few days later. This created an opportunity for everyone to learn from this type of situation that has the potential to occur again. First of all the staff realized that they needed to accommodate the residents with various levels of hearing loss by providing written announcements posted in obvious places. As a backup plan, this women decided to ask a close friend who had good hearing to keep her informed if there were future announcements that pertained to her that she might not hear. In some cases, the staff might want to seek out those with more severe hearing loss and/or memory difficulties to make sure they know what was happening and what they need to do.

Creating a Better Day

Take a moment to reflect on your life now and what you enjoy because your hearing is still pretty good. There are many things I enjoy, but what would happen to my quality of life as I enter the next decades of my life if I developed a significant loss in hearing? Listening and participating in conversations, attending concerts and lectures, educational radio programs, music, and books on tape and CD could become a challenge. And then there are those things that bring me peace, like listening to the ocean waves, the birds and squirrels in my back yard, hearing the rain fall on the roof of my enclosed porch or the laughter of children. What if I could no longer hear? How would I feel? What options would I have? If my vision was adequate, there are certainly other things I enjoy which would still be possible, but part of the quality of my life has been the ability to engage with people.

Blindness separates us from things but deafness separates us from people. Helen Keller

Now think of an older adult with a hearing loss that you know. What did they enjoy that a hearing loss has threatened to change? What is it that we might do to either modify the activity or offer assistance so that they could still have a day with meaningful activities? And what would we want someone to do for us if we were in a similar situation? In our busy lives, some of the little things sometimes just do not get noticed. Watching the impact of a hearing loss on the quality of my mother's life gave me an even better appreciation of suggestions to help educate families on effective strategies and the ever expanding resources they might want to consider.

Meeting Them Where They Are

Your sensitivity to the communication challenges of a hearing impaired person can go a long way in helping to increase their comfort, especially when they are around other people. In some cases, I have families that want to learn ways to work together to support their loved one. The outcomes are best when the hearing impaired person is part of that team and willing to participate in the solution. As I have watched situations like this evolve over a period of time, the benefits for all involved are obvious. A person with the hearing loss recognizes the individual efforts being made on their behalf. When things still don't quite work out, the level of acceptance often shifts because everyone is trying the best they can with the knowledge they have at the time. In my blog, I will be sharing more practical tips from those who are dealing with the frustrations of hearing loss on a daily basis.

When someone in the family has a hearing loss, the entire family has a hearing problem. Mark Ross, Ph.D.