What can You do to Help a Senior who has Hearing Loss?
The first thing you can do is to understand yourself that your senior might be able to experience improved hearing. But there is no way of knowing this unless they have had an examination by an audiologist. An audiologist is a healthcare professional who is trained to evaluate hearing loss and related disorders. You can help by encouraging the senior to get this important exam. If the senior has not seen an audiologist, you might recommend it. They might be resistant or again deny that they have a problem with hearing. If the senior is a member of an HMO, you could check to see if annual hearing exam is a covered benefit, some plans cover these as preventative care. If so, you might suggest that they use all of the benefits that they have available to them, including the hearing exam, especially if they are paying a monthly premium for their health benefits.
If the senior continues to refuse to have an exam, you may want to wait until you are not particularly talking about the subject of their hearing loss, and take a natural opportunity to tell a story about a senior you’ve heard about who had problems with hearing and didn’t realize it, how it affected them, and how once they were tested they had an improved life. Telling a story about someone else is a good way to share information without sounding like you are preaching. Don’t preach or nag, that’s not what a senior with hearing loss needs. Tell your senior that hearing loss is common and that you feel comfortable talking about it. Normalize how they must feel. Let them know that you care about them. Offer to go to the audiologist appointment with them if they would like. Let them know that you would really like to be able to have better communication with them, share more with them and thus be able to provide better care to them. If they still prefer not to go to have a hearing exam, at least check to see if they have discussed their hearing loss with their primary physician. Sometimes it takes the doctor to recommend an audiologist exam for a senior to break down and just do it. Just remember, that ultimately, a senior with sound mental capacity should have the final choice about their own healthcare, as well as all other parts of their life, and your job is to help them understand their options, provide support and honor their final decision. You can also read this previous post about Understanding Hearing Loss in Seniors.
Even if the senior in your care will never get a hearing exam, seek treatment, or even talk about their hearing loss, there are still things that you can do to help them. They might not even realize that you are helping them, but you will certainly make their lives more comfortable, and make their ability to communicate easier if you follow these helpful guidelines
Many people who are trying to communicate with a person with a hearing deficit yell their words. There are several very important reasons not to shout.
First, they don’t necessarily hear you any better. Often, a person has trouble hearing you not because of the volume of your voice, but because of the tone of your voice. Many people have trouble hearing the higher pitched voices, or voices that have a great variation in the high and low tones. Many females have high-pitched voices or speak very expressively with lots of high and low notes. If that describes you, you should be aware that some people have a hard time hearing you. Instead of shouting, try to lower the tone of your voice. Talking slowly, annunciating every word and lowering the tone of your voice will help a great deal towards making your speech understandable.
Second, many people, including you, me and seniors, often don’t realize that they read the body language of a person who is speaking to them, sometimes even more than the words that person is saying, to interpret the message being communicated. When you are raising your voice or shouting at a senior so that they can hear you, think about what your facial expressions and body look like. Your facial muscles tense up, your eyebrows bunch up a little and your eyes might squint slightly. You might be leaning in towards the senior and your shoulders may be a bit tense. These are the same facial expressions and body postures that you might have when you are angry or mad. If a person has a hard time hearing your words, they will assume that you are angry with them because they are reading your face and body. This will be the case even if your message is not negative or angry, and it could have even be meant to be a positive communication, but you may be interpreted as sending a negative message.
To test this out, try this fun exercise with a family or friend (please don’t use your senior). Tell the person that you are going to say something to them and they have to tell you what you said. Make yourself have an angry facial expression and angry body language, for instance, cross your arms across your chest, crunch up your eyebrows and tighten your lips. While doing this, mouth the following sentence to the other person, but allow no sound to come out of your mouth, just lip these words with your angry face:
ARE YOU FEELING PAIN TODAY?
Ask them what they think you said, but don’t tell them whether or not they are correct.
Then, tell them that you are going to say something else and this time when you do it, make your face calm, caring and pleasant with a nice smile (not a large animated smile, just a normal one), relax your eyes and facial muscles, and you can even touch the person on the arm, tilting your head a bit while you mouth these same words, making sure not to let any sound come out.
ARE YOU FEELING PAIN TODAY?
Again, ask them what they think you said. Most people may not guess exactly what you said, but most will guess that you said something mean or negative the first time, and that you said something nice, kind or neutral the second time. This clearly shows how someone who is hard of hearing could misinterpret you if you yell your words, so really put some thought into how your face and body look when you are talking to someone with a hearing deficit.
Allow Them to Read Your Lips
We all read lips to enhance and confirm what we hear, even if we aren’t aware that we are doing so. But a senior can’t read your lips if they can’t see them. The following hints will make it easier for a senior to see your face and your mouth, enabling them to better hear and understand you.
Face them. It may take a bit more effort on your part but it is very important to make sure that you are facing the senior and that they see you before you begin speaking. Don’t speak to them from the other room or from behind them where they can’t see you. If you want to be a caring family member who meets the needs of the senior you are caring for, you will take the extra effort.
Get up close. Talking from a far distance makes it not only harder to hear you, but also makes it harder to read your lips and face. Ideally, you should be directly in front of them 2-4 feet way, depending on the level of hearing deficit.
Make eye contact. If the senior in your care is very hard of hearing, unless they are looking right at you, they might not even realize that you are speaking. So, you may want to lightly touch their arm and wait until they look up and make eye contact before you begin to speak.
Check the lighting in the room. If the room is dark the senior can’t see your face and may hinder their ability to use lip or facial reading to aide in their understanding. Also, be aware that when you are standing in front of a bright window or light, you will only be a silhouette to the senior and they cannot see your face. Reposition yourself so that the lighting is better.
Wear lipstick. Of course this is not for everyone! But if you wear dark lipstick, it makes it easier for someone to read your lips.
Make sure your face if visible by keeping your hands and other items away from your face when you speak
Avoid talking while eating or chewing gum.
Trim facial hair such as a mustache that might hang over your mouth.
Check Noise in the Environment
Many people who have a hearing deficit have a hard time differentiating background noise from sound that is close up, which can be very confusing. When speaking, try to minimize any background noises such as TV, music, other conversations, barking dogs, screeching birds or children. Sometimes this may mean that you need to change rooms or politely ask others to keep their voices down, or close the door.
If you know that your senior cannot hear you because of the background noise in the environment you might be tempted to say something like “can I turn down the TV so that you can hear me better?” which may make them feel badly, could put them on the defense, or get them into the mode of denying a hearing problem. Instead, try to say something like “could I turn the TV down so that I can hear you better?” or “I’m having a hard time hearing you because of that dog barking, can we move into the other room where I can hear you better?” Putting it this way is a kinder way to get the same result without hurting or embarrassing the senior in your care.
Use Hand Gestures
For instance, as you are telling them that “it’s time to go”, also point to your watch and the door to clarify your meaning. Without these gestures, a person with a hearing deficit might think you said something like “some time ago” or “a tiny bow”. Use of hand gestures to more clearly communicate will help the senior understand your meaning. Do try to minimize unnecessary body movement unless it will help the senior to understand. Every little thing counts!
Write It Out
When all else fails with a very hard of hearing senior, it may help to write out what you’d like to say. This is assuming that the senior has good enough vision to read it. Keep dark markers in the home to write with and you might have to write large letters for a senior with both hearing and visual deficits. Consider writing out some common phrases or questions and keep them on reusable note cards so that you can use them over and over.
Get Their Attention
Make sure you have their attention before beginning to speak. You can say their name first, or give them a slight touch on the arm.
Keep it Short
Some other useful hints are to keep your sentences short and do not shout. Rephrase when needed, but don’t just keep repeating the same thing over and over in a louder voice. Avoid sudden changes in topic and try to avoid interrupting if someone else is speaking. If you are sharing important information, have the senior repeat it back to you.
A hearing impaired person shared that it really hurt her feelings when she came in late to a conversation and was told “never mind, we weren’t talking about anything important, we are done anyway”. She felt left out and unimportant. You don’t want your senior to feel that way!
These are some of the things that you can do to make the life of a senior with hearing deficits easier. You are now armed with information that will help you make a significant difference in the life of the senior in your care if you follow through and use this information. As a family caregiver, your goal is to help to improve the quality of life for your senior, and now you have some new tools. Good luck and good caring.
Don’t forget to read Understanding Hearing Loss in Seniors.
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