Aging Matters: Hearing loss and aging

Hearing loss is not exclusively associated with aging.

Hearing loss is not exclusively associated with aging. However, according to the American Academy of Audiology (www.audiology.org), “Hearing impairment is the third most commonly reported chronic problem affecting the aged population … Given the rapid growth in the population over 75 years of age, it is projected that more than 11 million members of this age group will have significant hearing impairments by the turn of the century.”

My mother, who died just a year ago, was the first person I knew with hearing loss; it was also her first disability. Her hearing loss began when she about the age I am now, a fact that had positive and negative ramifications. On the plus side, she accepted using hearing aids, as people sometimes do not when they are older and, shall we say, less flexible. The downside was that assertiveness techniques for the hard-of-hearing were not commonplace, so she ultimately lived with less social interaction than if she had learned those techniques. Remembering mom, this column is a reminder about the strategies you or someone you love can use to be conversationally engaged despite hearing loss.

Robert R. Sweetow in his article, “Training the adult brain to listen” (The Hearing Journal, 2005), mentions the importance of being an assertive listener, who asks a speaker to slow down or face forward for better audibility. Another strategy is asking the speaker to rephrase rather than repeat. Others are more subtle and require quite a bit of intentionality, such as setting the acoustic environment by asking that a door to a passageway be closed. A good listening assertiveness tip is available from Hearing Loss of Washington: a button or a visor for your car that reads, “I lip read. Please face me and speak clearly.”

A strategy to avoid is to bluff, pretending to hear; likewise, either dropping out of a conversation altogether or monopolizing it are called ‘maladaptive strategies.’

Above all, remember that hearing aids will only help to solve a hearing problem, not a listening problem. Technologies exist to help retrain the brain to listen more effectively. You can find out about them from a certified audiologist, whom you can locate through the Washington Society of Audiology, at www.washingtonaudiology.org or the Hearing Loss Association of Washington www.hearingloss-wa.org/faq_hearing_aids.htm.

My mom used “Huh?” quite a bit. Despite entertaining moments, like when she understood me to be offering her not a salmon omelet for breakfast, but salmonella, we’d all have been better off with assertive listening.

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