Hearing loss is common. In fact, about one-third of people in the United States between ages 65 and 74 have some degree of hearing loss. For people over age 75, that number is about 1 in 2. Even so, it can be difficult to accept hearing loss, and just as difficult to bring it up with a loved one. Read on to learn how to deal with hearing loss by understanding its causes, and find tips for interacting with a loved one and other people with hearing impairment.
Hearing loss often occurs naturally as people age. Inner ear structures degenerate over time, causing a loss of protective hairs and nerve cells. While some gradual hearing impairment is inevitable, certain factors can increase an individual’s risk of developing hearing problems. These include:
If a loved one is struggling to hear, you may notice them having difficulty in conversations, playing the radio or television loudly, or frequently asking you to repeat sentences. In some cases, they may have discharge or bleeding from the ear, earaches, nausea or dizziness.
Because the onset of hearing loss is often gradual, it can take a long time for people with hearing impairment to realize there is a problem. Accepting it can take even longer. For those who have dealt with hearing loss for a long time, talking about it can still be taxing. Although starting conversations with a loved one experiencing hearing loss may be difficult, it’s a key step toward learning how to live with someone hard of hearing. Here are some strategies for having productive conversations.
Before bringing up the topic, consider the timing of your conversation. Aim to have serious discussions early in the day, before navigating daily activities. These often have hearing impairment barriers to communication, which may increase your loved one’s stress levels. You can also approach them on their day off, when they are more likely to be relaxed and have time for a longer conversation.
Asking helpful questions can be a great way to create an open dialogue and make everyday communication easier. Some examples include: “Should we have this conversation in a quieter location?” and “Does the television need to be turned off when we talk?” Asking questions shows your loved one that you are engaged and gives them space to tell you exactly what they need.
During the conversation, it’s best to focus on facts and note specific symptoms that you’ve observed. Encourage them to get a professional evaluation through an appointment or during an annual check-up, but leave diagnosis to professionals. Hearing loss can be an emotional subject, so allow time for them to process what they are feeling.
It can be difficult to communicate with a loved one about their hearing troubles. Use our free conversation guide to prepare yourself and make sure that you're able to get help for your loved ones.
Using strategies that optimize speech understanding can also help when discussing hearing loss with a loved one.
Always make sure that your face is visible to the person you are speaking to—talk in a room with adequate lighting and face them directly. Do not cover your mouth or talk while you are chewing. Choose a place with minimal background noise when you are able. When interacting with a loved one, use their name before you speak to them to gain their attention, and maintain eye contact so they can read your facial expressions.
If the person you are speaking to has trouble understanding you, do not shout. This can distort your words and actually makes it more challenging to understand speech. You can also try to rephrase a sentence instead of repeating it if a listener is having difficulty understanding you. If they didn’t understand the first time, it is likely they will not understand the second time.
During COVID-19, you can take extra measures to make communication easier when wearing protective masks. If you are speaking while wearing one, it’s even important to practice effective communication strategies. Be sure to speak slowly, enunciate, rephrase (don’t repeat), and choose a quiet environment. If possible, wear a “communicator mask” with a clear panel on the front to allow lip-reading.
People with hearing impairment often need additional support when it comes to managing the impacts of hearing loss. It can be overwhelming to navigate daily life and adjust to symptoms, especially early on. One of the most important things you can do to support your loved one is to be present. Attend any appointments they may have and help to manage their schedule. Be an advocate for them—check for accommodations when staying in hotels or visiting theaters.
In conversation with multiple people, do your best to keep your loved one informed. Let them know when the topic has changed and try to create an optimal environment for listening. Standing or sitting in a circle helps by making every face visible, and quiet environments are ideal if possible. Teach others about communication strategies for people with hearing impairment as well.
If someone with hearing loss resists your help, it’s important for you to remember that they must take responsibility for their own hearing. Gently tell your loved one that hearing loss gets more difficult to treat as time goes on, reminding them that you are simply there to listen and offer support. You can also point them to resources to use when they are ready to discuss their hearing loss. Organizations like the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), American Academy of Audiology (AAA) and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) promote advocacy and offer educational resources, and the Miracle-Ear blog provides additional information and tips. These can serve as a starting point for you and your loved one to navigate their hearing journey.