Understanding Hearing Loss in Seniors

Hearing loss effects our lives in many ways.  Once,  I conducted a home visit with an elderly woman and her caregiver son.  The son worked out of the home and appeared very busy running around getting food ready, tending to his mother and answering is home office phone.  He kept telling me that his mom was “crazy” and “senile” and he didn’t know if he could continue caring for her in the home.  He went on to say that she was “demented” because each time he spoke to her, she just went off on some other tangent and began talking about some other subject.  I remember looking at her watching her son talk with me, and she had a kind of sad, lonely look on her face.  Then I noticed the home environment.  The television was blaring, there was a caged bird squawking, and the son would yell questions to her from the kitchen or from his little side office.  Yes, she responded a ridiculous answer to his question and smiled. And the son would say “see what I mean?”  I asked to turn down the TV, pulled up an ottoman and sat right in front of her.  In a slow, normal toned voice I looked into her eyes, and said “hello, I’m Sofia, what is your name?”  She told her her name, and when asked, told me about her day, about her son’s work and what she was watching on TV.  Her son walked into the room stunned.  He said to me “she’s not talked that lucid in years!”   

This is a common scenario when providing care to seniors.  Sometimes hearing loss can come on so gradually that family members don’t even realize.  Or they are so busy in their life that they don’t slow down to in order to help the senior understand them better.  This post will help you to understand the needs of a senior who is hard of hearing, learn what changes you can make in your communication style to help your senior, as well as learn what safety measures could be very important for  the senior in your life.

Doing Your Homework First

To better understand the needs of your hard-of-hearing senior, and to thus provide better care to them, I recommend that you start out by conducting the following little experiment.  Place earplugs in your ears for a few hours.  If you don’t have earplugs, use cotton balls, but actual earplugs will give you a better feel for what it is like to have hearing loss.  Now, go spend some time out in the world.  For instance, go shopping at the mall or grocery store or have a meal with family or friends at home or, even better, out at a restaurant.  If you can’t get out of the house, at the very least, try to function around your house and do what you would normally do, such as talking with others face to face or over the phone, playing with children, watching television or listening to music.  Even if you are all alone in an empty and quiet house, do this exercise.  I guarantee that it will make a difference in how you view and help your senior who is  hard of hearing.

Yes, I know, many of you may be thinking, “do I really have to do that?”  YES.  If you want to be able to really help and to never forget how much your senior  needs you to make the changes to help them communicate better, you must do this exercise.  There is no way that you could have insight into the problems associated with hearing loss unless you do this.  No need to be embarrassed about wearing the earplugs out in the world for a little while….just imagine what a senior with hearing aids must feel like having to wear those out to the mall.  If you have long hair it can cover your ears, or you can put a hat on if needed, but please don’t let your embarrassment prevent you from having this experience.  Taking someone along with you who knows what you are doing might make the experience a bit easier for you.  However you do it, just do it!   I’ve done this myself, and I have facilitated many others to go through this experience as well.  If you want to be a better caregiver, you will not regret going through this process.  

So, how did it feel to have your hearing taken away for just a few hours? This is how others have described the earplug experience:

  • Isolating/I felt alone/lonely
  • I avoided talking to people
  • I did not want to ask questions because I knew I could not hear the response
  • I felt myself wanting to withdraw from people as time went on
  • I started to feel paranoid that people were talking about me
  • I felt like I was missing out when people laughed and I did not hear what they were laughing about
  • I kept my eyes down so no one would talk to me
  • I just wanted to go home
  • I was embarrassed to have to ask them to repeat themselves
  • When watching the news, I was worried that I was missing something important
  • Other people were irritated that I couldn’t hear them when they talked to me from another room
  • The phone rang, and I did not want to answer it because I knew I couldn’t hear the person talking.
  • Someone had good news to share with me, but I did not ask the same questions as I normally would and did not become as enthusiastic because I knew that I could not have a good conversation with her.

Did you experience any of these things?  I bet you did, and maybe even some other emotions.  I hope that this exercise has given you some insight into what hard of hearing seniors experience every day.  They cannot take out their earplugs after a few hours like you were able to.  Most must live this way of life, to some extent, for the rest of their lives.  As a caregiver working with a a family member with hearing deficits, your goal should be to decrease these negative feelings mentioned above and increase a seniors ability to have successful and productive communication, and to assist a senior to be involved with the world as much as they would like.   Read on and you’ll learn just how.

How Can you Tell?

So, how do you know if the senior in your care is hard of hearing?  Well, if they are significantly hard of hearing, it will be obvious, and you would know that already.  It’s when the deficit is not huge, that it might be harder to tell.   Family members, doctors and even the senior themselves, might not even be aware of the hearing deficit.  Often hearing loss comes on so gradually that it is not noticed.  Look for some of these possible signs of decreased hearing:

  • Your senior may deny a hearing loss and become angry if you mention it
  • Your senior blames everyone for not talking clearly or mumbling
  • Your senior thinks they are responding to a question asked of them, but actually they heard the question wrong, so their response is completely unrelated.  This is often mistaken for confusion, when it is a hearing problem
  • You feel that your senior is often “confused”
  • Your senior is withdrawn or depressed
  • Your senior doesn’t want to socialize with others like they used to
  • Turning up the volume of the television very high
  • Doesn’t want to watch their favorite shows anymore
  • Your  senior seems to ignore you when you talk to them from behind or from another room

Not all items on this list are definite indicators of hearing loss, and there are also other signs of hidden hearing loss that are not listed here, but these should be red flags to start a discussion about possible hearing loss.  Understanding what they may be experiencing is the first big step in being able to communicate better, have empathy and help your senior improve their hearing environment.  Don’t forget to read this post called 7 Things you Can do to Help the Hard of Hearing.  

Did you try the ear plugs?  Have other responses to this post?  Please leave a comment!

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