“The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus – the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir, and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.”
There’s often a stigma around hearing loss that an elderly person is going “senile” and losing their sharpness. Because of this, the average time a senior waits before admitting to a problem with hearing is seven years. It’s important for seniors to know that hearing loss is treatable, and leaving it untreated can have significant consequences – and not just medically.
Hearing loss is not an inevitable part of aging, but seniors are commonly affected. One in three people over 65 has some type of hearing loss.
- You have trouble hearing while on the telephone
- You can’t seem to follow a conversation if there is background noise
- You struggle to understand women or children’s voices
- People complain that you turn up the TV volume too high
- You constantly ask people to repeat themselves
- You have a long history of working around loud noises
- You notice a ringing, hissing, or roaring sound in your ears.
Types of Hearing Loss
There are two types of hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss is a result of damage to the nerves of the inner ear or the nerves that carry sound to the brain. Sensorineural hearing loss can be caused by things like injuries, tumors, infection, and excessive exposure to noise. Unfortunately, this type of hearing loss is irreversible and can only be treated by aids or implants. However, loss from exposure to loud noises is preventable. Sound is measured in decibels; a normal conversation is around 45 decibels, and heavy traffic noise is about 85 decibels. Minimize your exposure to persistent loud noises above 85 decibels – never turn ear phone volume all the way up, and wear protective ear plugs when exposed to any noise over 85 decibels.
Conductive hearing loss occurs when a condition blocks sound waves from being transferred to the nerves involved in the hearing process. Conductive hearing loss usually affects just one ear, unlike sensorineural hearing loss. Causes include ear infections, ear wax, a punctured eardrum, and other diseases that affect the ear. Conductive hearing loss can usually be corrected and restored. Mixed hearing loss, a combination of sensorineural and conductive hearing loss, occurs when someone with nerve damage contracts an ear infection or wax impaction, causing their hearing to get much worse.
If you or a loved one has symptoms of hearing loss, talk to a doctor about treatment options. In conductive hearing loss cases, antibiotics can help infections that cause fluid buildup, and surgery can repair damage caused by trauma or tumors. The nerve damage in sensorineural cases cannot be reversed, but there are several options that can help restore the senior’s hearing. In severe cases, cochlear implants can be surgically inserted. If the hearing loss is not bad enough for a cochlear implant, battery-powered hearing aids can be a good option. However, they can be expensive and require time and effort to go through a fitting process, making many seniors wary to use them. Some seniors are also embarrassed to wear them and see them as a stigma of old age. It is normal for it take some time for seniors to become orientated to their new device, said Rosellen Reif, a counselor in Raleigh, North Carolina who helps those with physical disabilities. “But once you realize how they improve your interactions with others and your ability to feel like yourself again, odds are you’ll be happy to incorporate [them] into your daily routine,” Reif said.
Another option is assistive listening devices. These include electronic media – television and radio listening systems – and warning devices for people who can’t hear alarms, like alert systems that use visual signals instead of sounds. No matter the severity or type of hearing loss, there are treatment options available. A doctor or specialist can help find the best treatment for you or your elderly loved one.
Living with Hearing Loss
While seniors can seek treatment from special devices to cope with hearing loss, Reif also suggested that a few small changes to daily life can also be effective. It will help to tell others how they can help you hear them better. “By giving people specific ways they can help you hear, you’re reducing their frustration and confusion as well as your own,” Reif said. It can also help to find an alternative to saying “What?” every time you cannot hear someone, which may come off as rude, according to Angela Nelson, a doctor of audiology. She said to instead try saying what you think you heard them say. “That small difference makes people feel like you’re trying to understand and can ease tension.” Other helpful things seniors with hearing loss can try include:
- Asking them to say your name to get your attention before they start talking
- Facing others when they are speaking
- Reducing background noise, like television or music
- Repeating details and information back to ensure you heard correctly
- Including loved ones in doctor appointments so they can learn about your treatments
It’s important for those seniors with hearing loss to find the right treatment and support they need, and to avoid becoming isolated due to their hearing loss. A lack of social engagement can lead to a greater risk of anxiety and depression. If your senior loved one is resistant to treatment, talk to them about what they are missing out on due to their hearing loss, and how treatment can improve their overall well being. “Hearing isn’t just to hear a bird’s pretty song,” Nelson said. “If you lose your hearing, you lose your communication and the people around you.”
Written by Taylor French, Amada contributor.