For many years, my family would get together at my Cousin Robin’s house for holiday dinner. The house would fill with children, parents, grandparents, cousins and even people, who, I suspected, were strangers who were attracted by the smell of food. One of my favorite people in those wonderful gatherings was Robin's father-in-law, Paul.
Paul was a sharp man, full of wit, great stories and good humor. He was also hearing impaired. Paul struggled during these dinners when wine and food was plentiful, children played, laughed and cried without much provocation, and we all talked at the same time. I always wanted to visit with Paul but to do so we had to find a quiet corner in the house. At the dinner table, I often sat next to Paul and struggled, with him, to converse. I am an audiologist. I understood how hard it was for him to hear.
Paul wore a hearing aid that he had purchased many years before. It was not just right for him. So often, during those years, I would bring the latest technological devices to help him out. Once, I recall putting a microphone on the table that would pick up sounds and transmit them to a new hearing aid I placed in his ear. It helped, but the technology was not yet perfected. Paul died four years ago. I miss him and especially during this time of year, I think about other people with similar struggles.
Holidays can be especially hard for people whose hearing is impaired. Of course there are different levels of hearing loss and for each person the struggle to compensate or overcome that loss may be different. Similarly, the best way to address the hearing loss may differ. But the first line of defense for each of us is to recognize that there is a hearing loss.
Most people lose their hearing slowly and, initially, may not be aware of the fact that they are missing the subtleties of the conversation around them. Families can help by watching for the signs of hearing loss. The symptoms of hearing impairment include requests for repetition of a question or comment, or a response to a question or comment that is wrong, or even no response at all. How many of us walk into our parent’s home to find the TV unbelievably loud. How many of us are aware that we turn up the volume on our own TV’s? Early hearing loss is often in the high or softer sounds. In order to hear, then, the impaired hearer may turn up all sound and suffer through loud noise in order to hear softer sounds. No one is comfortable with this.
Individuals with a moderate hearing impairment will have similar struggles as those people with mild losses. The difference is that the hearing impairment is more obvious and the symptoms of hearing loss more frequent. These individuals often feel isolated because they cannot participate fully in group conversations. They may withdraw from social contacts, especially those contacts where there may be significant background noise. Since conversation for the hearing impaired is easier when the person with hearing loss can look directly at the speaker and watch their mouth movements, the person may be additionally handicapped in dim lighting.
A person with a moderatel- severe to severe hearing loss has likely sought help, has been diagnosed and is wearing a hearing aid. There are many brands of hearing aids and for each brand there are a number of features and strengths and bells and whistles to match the needs of the individual. Unfortunately, some people are wearing hearing devices that are wrong for them. If so, the holiday can be an unnecessarially frustrating and lonely experience. The individual may come across as not interested in others, aloof or even self centered! The ability to communicate is difficult at best. Providing a healthy communicating environment and utilizing the best technology for their communication needs is critical.
The most severe level of hearing loss is known as "severe" or "profound hearing loss". Once again an individual with a profound hearing loss has likely been diagnosed and is wearing a hearing aid. Even with a hearing aid, some people with a severe or profound loss cannot hear well. If your loved one has a severe hearing loss, you can help by being conscious of what he or she is experiencing. Those with severe losses will likely withdraw from family events and parties. Communicating, particularly where there is background noise, can be very difficult.
For all degrees of hearing loss, it is now possible to provide substantial help with the proper hearing aid adjusted to each individual’s need. People with profound hearing loss should buy the best, most advanced hearing aid they can afford. Others with milder deficiencies can be helped with small, ”invisible” aids that target particular deficiencies. Some aids come equipped with helpful devices like microphones that communicate directly to the aid, or those that work with television sets or blue tooth technology. Others have volume controls or alternate channels to work with differing backgrounds. A good audiologist can help sort out the choices and assistance available in today’s technology.
Paul saw his audiologist fairly often and although he lived far away I really never had the chance to talk to his audiologist and share his struggles in family life. I wish now that I would have done that and/or empowered him and his provider to give him the best he could do with his hearing thresholds and abilities. For those of you with loved ones in your life with hearing impairment I encourage you to help meet their communication needs. One way of helping is by providing the best hearing environment and understanding as well as getting them the appropriate hearing health care they require.