Dr Dimity Dornan, AO, is the Executive Director and Founder of Hear and Say, a foundation that has grown to become a world leader in hearing, listening and speaking. Dimity is the current Senior Australian of the Year for Queensland, and was awarded an AO in 2014.
What you need to know about hearing loss and its impacts on those in their later years.
Significant deafness later in life is usually the result of damage to the inner ear or nerve-related. It may be caused by injury, disease, certain medications or exposure to loud noise or age-related wear and tear. Few people know how much noise we’re actually exposed to, and if it’s loud enough and often enough, this noise can cause significant hearing loss.
Does this story sound familiar to you?
When we speak about hearing loss in older people, we’ll often talk about a typical adult, such as someone like Brian. Let’s say Brian is a farmer with severe hearing loss caused by machinery noise on his farm. He tends to be quite grumpy and, while he often can’t hear what other people are saying, he refuses to visit the audiologist or hearing aid shop to ask for a hearing test. When he does eventually get hearing aids, probably 10 years after he first experienced hearing loss, he’ll wear them irregularly. For someone like Brian, who isn’t wearing his hearing aids full time for a good six-week period and getting lots of practice talking with others, he won’t be giving his brain time to practice understanding and becoming accustomed to life with hearing aids. As a result, the hearing aids end up in the top drawer and the money spent on them goes to waste.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because many men (and women) are dealing with this exact issue. For those who are experiencing significant hearing loss, this can affect their ability to communicate and lead them to avoid making social relationships. Consequently, feelings of isolation and loneliness can increase and you may see deterioration in someone’s quality of life.
Protecting the brain
Not only can a loss of hearing impact on older people’s sociability, but their's also reasonably strong evidence of an association between a decline in sensory abilities including hearing loss and a decline in cognition in the elderly.
If older adults can no longer hold loving conversations with others who care for them, their brain will not be stimulated in the important areas of listening and speaking, and we all know that if we don’t use our brain, then the brain pathways dedicated to those functions will be changed, or even lost, if the situation continues for long enough.
Top tips – helping your loved one adjust to hearing loss
Here are some simple tips to help reduce conversational difficulties for both the listener and the speaker. These will be especially helpful if you or your loved one has just started to adjust to hearing loss.
1. Don’t try to hide the loss of hearing
For the listener: although it might seem difficult at first, it’s important to acknowledge your hearing loss so that the person (or people) you’re talking to know to speak clearly when addressing you. It’ll also help avoid misunderstandings if you don’t respond straight away when someone is talking to you.
For the communication partner: when speaking to someone wearing hearing aids, don’t feel like you need to shout or exaggerate your mouth movements. Simply speak clearly and a little slower and louder than you normally would.
2. Use hearing-assistive technology
For the listener: if you already own hearing aids, by all means wear them. If you don’t, be sure to check with your hearing healthcare professional about what’s available to you, as hearing aid technology is improving all the time.
For the communication partner: if it looks like your partner is having difficulty communicating and they’re not using their hearing aids or other assistive technology, do your best to encourage them to get help for how to use the digital technology or other assistive technology that could benefit them.
3. Be prepared
For the listener: as much as you can, plan ahead for what may be difficult hearing situations. If you know you’re going to a busy restaurant with friends or family, see if you can request a table away from the noisy kitchen. You could even familiarise yourself with the menu online beforehand, so that when you sit down you don’t have to worry about reading the menu and chatting at the same time.
For the communication partner: when attending an event or dining out with someone who is hard of hearing, the more planning ahead you do, the more you can help to minimise any problem situations.
From choosing a relatively quiet restaurant with carpeted flooring, to arriving early at an event (for example,. a lecture) to grab seats at the front, these small things can help your partner.
4. Verify what you think you heard
For the listener:if you’re feeling unsure about what you heard, confirm the details with the speaker. That way, you’ll be able to make sure you understood their message, which can actually help avoid complications or embarrassment down the line.
For the communication partner:whether you’re giving directions or explaining something, make sure your partner understands by using a phrase like, “Did that make sense?”
5. Be assertive
For the listener: this is something that will come more easily with practice, but be assertive so that a conversation flows more easily. If you’re in a group situation, it might mean asking everyone to not all talk at once. In a work situation like a conference call, it could mean asking each person to identify themselves when they speak.
For the communication partner: from upping the volume to slightly slowing your speech, these little accommodations will enable the conversation to flow more easily – just remember not to get offended or take it personally if your partner asks you to make changes to your speech.
6. Listen with your eyes, not just your ears
For the listener: during conversations, do your best to always watch the speaker’s face as it will give you visual cues through the movement of their lips as well as their facial expressions.
For the communication partner: try not to cover your mouth with your hands or another object like a restaurant menu, so that your lips and facial expressions are clearly visible to your partner.
7. Go easy on yourself
For the listener: lastly, but most importantly, go easy on yourself and your family, friends, and those you encounter throughout the day. Although there will be instances where things are tough, don’t place blame on yourself or others; just try to do your best to incorporate these tips and stay positive.
For the communication partner: remind yourself that, even when times are difficult for you, they’re likely even more challenging for the person you’re talking to. Be patient, and use the strategies outlined here as much as possible.
What to remember
Hearing connects us to the people we love through its ability to help us communicate and engage with those around us. Hearing helps us to share our innermost thoughts and feelings, and the conversations we have with those we love protect our brains. It’s for these reasons that we need to protect our hearing, and keep practising and adapting if we start to use hearing aids. When it comes to protecting our hearing, early action is essential as intervention with a hearing aid can slow and reduce effects on the brain.