Most people gradually lose their hearing as they age. The process even has a name: presbycusis, which means the gradual, progressive inability to hear. It happens when the tiny hair cells in the inner ear, which pick up sound waves and send them as nerve signals to the brain, become damaged or die. These hair cells can’t regenerate, so the hearing loss it causes is permanent.
There are many different causes of age-related hearing loss. The most common cause is simply physiological changes to the inner ear that occur with age. Your genes, frequent exposure to loud noises, smoking, and certain medical conditions all play a role in hearing loss as well.
It can be tough to cope with hearing loss, even when it comes on gradually. Being able to hear what’s going on in the world around us helps us stay aware and involved. When we can’t hear well, we have trouble understanding and applying a doctor’s advice. We can’t hear safety alarms, door bells, or ringing telephones. Dealing with changes in hearing—whether in ourselves or our loved ones—is an emotional and physical challenge. Here’s how you can make the process easier:
Manage Your Own Hearing Loss
When you first confront your own inability to hear, you may feel sad or scared. It’s frightening to live in a world where the sounds you’re used to hearing are muffled or muted. You can no longer hear your loved ones’ words or your favorite music. Allow yourself the time to mourn your lost hearing. This is the most important step, because you can’t fully explore your options if you’re still grieving your lost sounds.
And there are excellent options available for seniors with hearing loss today. Speak with your primary doctor for a referral to an audiologist or hearing aid specialist. There is a broad range of technologically advanced hearing aids you can use to amplify the sounds coming into your ears. Most hearing aids are small, discreet, and budget-friendly.
Another option for the younger senior is a cochlear implant. This is a device inserted into the inner ear that mimics the biological process of hearing. Some studies show that cochlear implants are less effective with severe hearing loss and in the very elderly, so this is not an option for everyone.
Assistive listening devices are technological tools that amplify the sound you want to hear, such as the telephone. You can use them with or without a hearing aid to help you distinguish certain, more important, sounds. There are also captioned phones—special phones that come with built-in screens—that can be used with a relay service. The service captions the speech of the other person in real time, allowing you to read what they’ve said and to respond.
It’s hard to keep asking your friends and family to repeat themselves, and eventually you may give up and retreat into silent isolation. Don’t suffer alone. Tell your loved ones about your hearing loss and ask them to speak more clearly to you.
Manage Your Loved One’s Hearing Loss
When your loved one’s hearing starts to deteriorate, you’ll often notice it before they do. You’ll find yourself having to repeat your words, sometimes raising your voice until they hear you. It can be disconcerting, even downright depressing, to realize your spouse, parent, or friend can no longer hear what you’re saying.
Help your loved one manage their hearing loss. He or she may want to stay in denial at first, but the faster they get help, the faster they can get back to enjoying life’s beautiful sounds. Before you say anything to them, make sure you’ve processed your own emotions and have come to terms with their hearing loss.
Approach your parent when he or she is relaxed and you both have a block of time to talk. Explain that you’ve noticed their hearing is getting worse, and they might benefit from a hearing aid or other device. Stay calm and compassionate—nobody wants to be lectured to. Offer to accompany your loved one to the doctor or hearing specialist, so you can help them process the information and decide on the best course of action. Do your research on the different options available, and be your loved one’s advocate.
When you know someone has impaired hearing, face them when you speak, and speak clearly. Don’t speak too slowly or loudly; you just need to make sure not to speed-talk or garble your words. Reduce or eliminate any background noise—hearing impairment makes it difficult to distinguish close conversation from other less important sounds.
Let your loved one know you’re there for support and love. Hearing loss is terribly isolating, and the extra support makes all the difference.