When it comes to your parents’ health, it’s likely that you pay the most attention to their blood pressure or their ability to drive safely. Yet there is another health issue that infrequently makes headlines, but also warrants your awareness. Should you allow this medical concern to go undiagnosed, it can have a significant effect upon your parents’ relationships and well-being.
How Hearing Loss Affects Lives
While age-related hearing loss is common, it is not only the elderly who face this condition, as hearing loss may occur for a variety of reasons. “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 based in Washington State. “Those nerve cells will wear down and the high frequency wears out first.”
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that 2 percent of adults 45-54 have disabling hearing loss, and this number increases to 25 percent for the 65-74 age demographic. And of the adult population who is 75 and older, 50 percent have hearing loss.
Still, this condition isn’t exclusive to 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 in leisure activities or work-related noise.
Hearing loss impacts people’s lives the greatest, Seymour says because it “sneaks up on you [and] it’s gradual.” High-frequency loss is most common in older adults and is associated with being unable to hear most consonant sounds. This is one of the confusing symptoms of hearing loss because it means that although the listener can hear the voice of the speaker, he/she cannot discern the words. Shouting doesn’t help because increasing volume usually cannot compensate for the loss of specific frequencies.
This is one reason why seniors with undiagnosed hearing loss are likely to appear confused when spoken to or nod and smile along because they are unable to hear all the words being spoken. In the extreme circumstances, seniors might even withdraw from social situations, leading to isolation and depression.
These behaviors can result in older adults being misdiagnosed with dementia instead of 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.
Sadly, most seniors wait five to seven years after recognizing they have hearing loss to seek help, meaning they have lived without environmental sounds for a long time. When they finally purchase a hearing aid, it is an immediate shock to their system. A person with normal hearing can easily filter background noise from a conversation, while a hearing aid receives all sound through a microphone. This means that 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 that this is often why hearing aids end up in a drawer; seniors are overwhelmed by the flood of sound because the brain has to readjust to filtering out background noise.
Hearing Loss Requires New Communication Methods
Should your parent refuse to recognize they have hearing loss, there are communication strategies you can use. One simple way is saying their name to get their attention. All too often we begin a conversation without getting the listener’s attention first. Seymour says that we are conditioned to respond to our name even if we are unable to hear it spoken. By saying your parent’s name first, they have the opportunity to prepare to listen.
In addition to speaking slower and more clearly, another method, which will take some getting used to, is to use fewer words. Although it may seem as though you are dumbing down the conversation, this isn’t the case. Rather, you are distilling the conversation to its root by choosing words more deliberately. Seymour suggests introducing the topic of conversation first before starting the discussion. For example, rather than saying, “The sun is shining and the weather is warm, let’s go for a walk,” instead try, “Let’s go for a walk because the sun is shining.”
For adult children who want their parents’ hearing tested, most insurance companies and Medicare will cover a diagnostic test. Seymour recommends visiting a licensed audiologist for the testing because they are “more attuned to the hearing health of the person” and can teach families new communication techniques to compensate for hearing loss and its effects upon your loved one. So if your parent has an upcoming annual physical, don’t forget the hearing test.
Andrea Watts is a writer at SeniorHomes.com, a free resource for families and seniors who are navigating the issues surrounding long-term care, such as costs and care options. We offer helpful guides on the long-term care options and connect families to family advisors who can serve as their guide every step during this process.