It’s a common trope in movies, and generally played for laughs: the older person who can’t hear very well. They keep asking the other characters to speak up, and everyone gets frustrated. It’s as well-worn as it is irritating, because it makes light of what is a very serious issue. Hearing loss is about more than needing people to shout—it impacts how we interact with the world, and with that, our identity.
This ailment can strike any age group, but is especially prevalent among the elderly. In fact, over 8% of people between the 55 and 64 suffer hearing loss. Knowing the causes, and what to do about it, can help ease the difficulties that come with hearing loss and allow aging loved ones to fully enjoy their later years.
Why do people lose their hearing?
Although many people are born deaf, or lose their hearing through accidents or illnesses, age-related hearing loss is also common. It’s called “presbycusis,” and occurs when tiny hairs inside the ear that help transmit sound waves begin to die off. Presbycusis gradually comes to affect both ears, and cannot be undone, as hairs inside the ear don’t grow back after something happens to them.
This means a lot more than asking people to speak up. It means not being able to hear the songs you loved, or watch TV and movies and hear the important intonation that makes up so much. It means being left out of conversations even though you are right there, and more devastatingly, it means people mistaking a hearing ailment for a sign of mental deficiency. (Both the aged and naturally deaf can speak to this—the cruel and bizarrely common perception that not being able to hear means not being able to understand.)
All this makes interacting with the world difficult and frustrating, and can cause people to turn inward, insulating themselves from others. It can increase loneliness. Luckily, it isn’t irredeemable.
What to do about hearing loss
For age-related hearing loss that can’t be prevented, addressing it involves minimizing future damage and maximizing whatever hearing your loved one still has. At the very least, cutting down or eliminating the risk factors to hearing loss plays a large part in preserving hearing.
But if your loved one has already suffered some measure of hearing loss, your first step should be to visit an audiologist. He or she will be able to determine the extent of damage to the hearing faculties, and can come up with an appropriate treatment plan.
One aspect of this plan may be a hearing aid. There are analog hearing aids, which increase the volume of certain sounds while lowering that of others, and digital hearing aids, which let the wearer choose which sounds to make louder or softer. Some people don’t like wearing hearing aids, thinking it makes a concession to a problem they can solve, but having an honest and serious conversation about it can help ease their discomfort.
There are also a variety of assistive devices that can make hearing easier. Many of these can be used around the house to make sounds louder, including specialized phones, TVs, radios, alarm clocks, smoke detectors, and similar items.
If your loved one is willing to learn a new skill (a good idea in any case, since it helps keep the brain active), they can study lip reading and/or sign language. However, because of the significant investment of time needed to achieve proficiency, these routes are usually taken by those with worst-case scenario hearing loss, such as deafness.
As a last resort, surgery may be considered. One newer development in the treatment of hearing loss is cochlear implants. These are surgically-implanted electronic devices with a corresponding part placed in or behind the ear. Like lip reading or sign language, they are typically employed only for the most severe hearing loss. They function much like hearing aids, in that they make sound louder. However, there are risks associated with cochlear implants, just like there are with any surgery. Be sure to speak extensively to your loved one’s physician about whether or not it is the right option for them.
However, what might be most important is communication itself. Remember that language is just about communication, and that can be more than speech. Caregivers and loved ones have a variety of shortcuts that will maximize the ability to communicate even without speech.
- Cards. You can have cards for normal things, like “Would you like something to eat,” or “I’ll be back at 4:00.” These won’t cover everything, of course, but can still be very helpful. With these, you won’t have to have a frustrating conversation about minor things, which can inhibit trying to talk about more important issues.
- Signals. Same as cards, but more flexible. A personal sort of sign language between you and your loved one.
- Technology. No one likes sending text messages when they are in the same room, but overcoming that reticence for some things, especially the basics, can be helpful. Engaging with technology is also a great way to keep an older loved one’s mind active.
You have to emphasize the need for them to communicate as well. If they can’t hear you ask if they want something, they will have to tell you themselves. In a way, this is a microcosm of all care techniques: getting over discomfort to make everyone as happy as possible.
Senior hearing loss is treatable
Hearing loss is the third most common chronic health condition that older adults suffer from. Left untreated, it is a major contributing factor to things like social withdrawal, depression, and cognitive decline. There may be nothing that can undo senior hearing loss once it’s reached a certain stage. However, it can—and should—be managed to whatever extent possible. If it is, your loved one can look forward to many more years of listening—and being listened to by others.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.