Communicating with a Hearing Impaired Loved One
Some degree of hearing loss is common in older adults, and hearing problems range in severity from a minor annoyance to significant disability. Some people have difficulty hearing speech; others, though able to hear sounds, have difficulty making out words.
If your loved one’s hearing loss is mild or moderate, make the most of what hearing he or she has left by following a few communication strategies suggested by hearing health professionals.
Many factors can influence the ability to hear, including childhood disease, occupational noise or injury, or family history. In older adults, hearing loss often comes on gradually. The most common causes are otosclerosis (a kind of arthritis of the small bones in the inner ear), tinnitus ("ringing in the ears"), and presbycusis (the inability to hear sounds in the upper range, such as speech).
Avoiding exposure to loud noises helps protect our hearing; however, most hearing loss is not preventable and cannot be reversed, although many people can be helped with a hearing aid or other assisted listening device.
Hearing loss often has a negative impact on the person’s personal safety and ability to perform the tasks of daily living. But perhaps the most serious effect is on the ability to connect with others, leading to withdrawal and social isolation.
If your loved one has a hearing impairment, encourage him or her to work with a hearing health professional for assessment, treatment or assistance. Reassure your loved one that there is nothing to be embarrassed about—after all, over a third of all Americans over 60 experience significant hearing loss.
10 Communication Tips
No matter what the degree of hearing loss your loved one has, you both may be experiencing frustration and difficulty during conversations. If your loved one’s hearing loss is mild or moderate, make the most of what hearing he or she has left by following a few communication strategies suggested by hearing health professionals:
- As much as possible, reduce or avoid background noise such as radio, TV, other conversations, or rustling paper.
- Speak slightly louder than normal, but don't shout. Shouting actually causes sound to be distorted.
- Speak at moderate speed—not too fast or too slow. Articulate carefully, but don't exaggerate your speech. Pause between sentences.
- For the listener, lip movement, facial expression and gestures are important visual clues. So if your loved one has adequate vision, speak at a distance of between three and six feet, with the light source on your face.
- Face the listener and don’t turn away or cover your mouth with your hand.
- Avoid chewing gum while speaking, and don’t talk with your mouth full during mealtime conversation.
- Don't speak directly into the listener's ear. This hides visual clues and may distort sound.
- If the person doesn't seem to understand what you are saying, rephrase the statement with slightly different words. Try using shorter, simpler sentences.
- Use gestures, or write notes if necessary—for example, when spelling a name.
- When first beginning a conversation, alert your loved one to your presence by catching his or her eye, or gently touching the shoulder or arm.
Be patient, and above all treat the hearing impaired person with respect. If you are conversing with someone else who is in the room, it is frustrating and isolating for a person with hearing problems to know that he or she is missing out on a conversation—especially if he or she is the subject of that conversation!
Knowing how to accommodate your loved one’s loss of hearing can have an important effect on your relationship, and on his or her quality of life.
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