Hearing Loss: An invisible, but consequential, disability

Ticket stubs from concerts or calluses built up from decades of pushing a lawnmower are not the only mementos your parents have of these experiences. Unless they wore hearing protection, these experiences had an invisible impact that is likely affecting them—and you—right now. If your priorities are watching Woman whispering into husband's earyour parents’ blood pressure or cholesterol, you’re not alone. Hearing loss isn’t a health issue that receives publicity, but it can have a significant effect upon an older adult’s relationships and well-being than their families realize.

“Hearing loss is inevitable because of the biological structure of the ear,” says Christine Seymour, owner of CS-Deaf and Hard of Hearing Resource Specialists. “Those nerve cells will wear down and the high frequency wears out first.”

While age-related hearing loss is common, hearing loss may occur at any age for a variety of reasons. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that 2 percent of adults 45-54 have disabling hearing loss, and this number jumps to 25 percent of adults who are between the ages of 65-74. And of the adult population who is 75 and older, 50 percent have hearing loss. But this condition doesn’t just affect baby boomers and their parents. Twenty-six million Americans between the ages of 20-69 are estimated to have high-frequency hearing loss resulting from exposure from leisure activities or work-related noise.

Symptoms of hearing loss

Hearing loss impacts people’s lives the greatest, as it “sneaks up on you because it’s gradual,” Seymour says. High-frequency loss is most common in older adults and is associated with being unable to hear most consonant sounds. What this means is someone is able to hear the voice of the speaker but not understand the words. Shouting doesn’t help because increasing volume usually cannot compensate for the loss of specific frequencies. .

Consequentially, a senior is likely to withdraw from social situations, which can lead to isolation and depression. And when these seniors are involved in conversations, they are likely to appear confused when spoken to, or nod and smile along because they are unable to hear all the words being spoken.

This behavior is why older adults may be diagnosed with dementia instead of a hearing loss. “Hearing loss behavior and dementia behavior can look alike,” Seymour explains. “Unfortunately, [hearing tests] are not part of the annual wellness assessments recommended,” which can leave older adults undiagnosed for years.

Seymour says she has witnessed seniors becoming reengaged with life upon receiving a hearing aid, and it makes a tangible difference in the quality of living. Most people wait five-seven years after recognizing a hearing loss before taking steps to remedy it. Unfortunately when they finally purchase hearing aids, they have lived without environmental sounds for a long time. While a normal-hearing person can filter background noise from conversation, a hearing aid receives all sound through a microphone. And when the hearing aids are turned on, all noises (from rain on the window to a person talking in front of you) comes through at the same volume. Seymour says this is often why hearing aids end up in a drawer—seniors are overwhelmed by the flood of noises because the brain has to readjust to filtering out background noise.

Hearing loss requires new methods of communication

For adult children who want their parents’ hearing tested, most insurance companies and Medicare will cover a diagnostic test. Seymour recommends going to a licensed audiologist to do the test because they are “more attuned to the hearing health of the person” and can teach families learn new communication methods to compensate for hearing loss and its effects upon an individual.

One simple way Seymour advises to improve communication is saying your parent’s name before talking. We are conditioned to respond to our name even if we are unable to hear it spoken, but all too often we begin speaking without getting the Friends chatting over coffeelistener’s attention first. By saying your parent’s name first, they have the opportunity to prepare to listen. Another method requires being more conscious of how you speak:  slowing down and speaking clearer.

Another method, which will take some getting used to, is using fewer words. It may seem as though you are dumbing down the conversation, but that’s not the case. Rather, you are distilling the conversation to its root. Seymour also suggests introducing the topic of conversation first before starting the discussion. Instead of saying, “The sun is shining and the weather is warm, let’s go for a picnic,” say instead, “Let’s go for a picnic because the weather is pleasant.”

Seymour says that hearing loss is a two-way street, but those with hearing loss have the larger part of responsibility in letting people know what they need. And unfortunately if people with hearing loss have not learned self-advocacy skills, they will likely not let the speaker know that they can’t understand what is being said.

Giving hearing loss its due

It is only within the last 30 years that hearing loss has started receiving the attention it deserves. But Seymour sees more work ahead to make seniors and their families aware of its effects, as this may reduce the number of hearing aids being abandoned in drawers.

Though hearing aid technology has advanced significantly, with some models being made smaller so it’s not obvious that someone has a hearing loss, “hearing loss is invisible,” and there is a benefit to visible hearing aids because it “announces to the world that I can’t hear,” Seymour says. This allows speakers to adjust their communication methods accordingly to minimize confusion and frustration. So during your parent’s annual physical, don’t forget the hearing test—and don’t forget ordering a test for yourself, too.

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