As a general rule, audiologists will tell you the most rewarding part of being a hearing healthcare professional is helping people hear better. They will also tell you one of the most frustrating aspects of the profession is overcoming the stigma of wearing hearing aids.
"When I told one 88 year-old patient of mine that he needed hearing aids, he told me he was going to wait awhile," W.L. "Hunter" Huntley III, HAS, BC-HIS of Leonardi Hearing Center in Fort Myers, Florida, said. "I told him if he waited much longer, his hearing was going to be perfect!"
All kidding aside, research indicates Americans wait an average of 10 years after diagnosis before making the decision to purchase hearing aids. Other research suggests that 80 percent of individuals who could benefit from wearing hearing aids do not. Why? While cost, look and feel are issues, the biggest reason seems to be the stigma of wearing the devices.
That's unfortunate because not only can untreated hearing loss negatively affect overall health, it can also damage relationships with friends and family, resulting in social isolation, anger and depression.
So - how can you address this stigma and shorten the timeframe it takes for your loved one to purchase hearing aids? Here are a few suggestions.
Hearing aids are to ears what prescription glasses are to eyes. We don't think twice about scheduling our annual eye exam. Shouldn't our ears get the same treatment?
Actually, having our ears checked annually may be beneficial for more than just your hearing health. Untreated hearing loss may be an underlying symptom for a larger health problem, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Those with untreated hearing loss are at a greater risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer's. Not hearing well can also lead to social isolation, relationship problems with friends and family, loss of income or earning potential, depression, anxiety and anger. And, because we hear with our brains, untreated hearing loss can also lead to cognitive difficulties. The brain can "forget" what it's like to hear, making it more difficult to regain those pathways once individuals do seek treatment.
The good news is, the majority of presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss, is sensorineural in nature and can be treated with a hearing aid. While hearing aids do not restore normal hearing, 90 percent of hearing aid users are satisfied with the way their devices perform and report greater satisfaction with their daily routines. More information on the risks associated with untreated hearing loss can be found on the Healthy Hearing website.
Debunk the stigma
Today's hearing aids are not the same device your grandma wore. Although programmable analog hearing aids are a less expensive option and do still exist, they are increasingly being replaced by digital technology which replicates sound more authentically, minimizes background noise and feedback more effectively and can connect wirelessly to Bluetooth devices such as smart phones and televisions.
"I don't know how many times I've heard someone say 'I'm too young to get hearing aids'," Eliza Evans, M.S., FAAA of Alliance Audiology in Concord, New Hampshire, said. "I look at them and think 'Really? I have three year-old patients with hearing aids'."
Hearing aids also come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors - some of them are so small they are virtually undetectable. Your audiologist can help determine the best model for your hearing loss, lifestyle and dexterity.
Have the conversation
Choose a time and place to have an honest, non-judgmental conversation with your loved one about hearing aids. Share what you've learned about the risks associated with untreated hearing loss. Express your concerns their condition may present a safety issue, especially if they aren't able to hear warning signals at the railroad crossing or the smoke alarm when it rings in the middle of the night.
Be patient and understanding. Regardless of your concern, successful hearing aid users have come to this decision on their own.
"We never push," Aliza Weinzimer, Au.D. of Pacific Audiology in Portland, Oregon, said, "but we always send everyone out the door with a booklet on hearing loss and good communication strategies. If someone is not motivated to make a change immediately, we talk to them about options to bridge the gap and enhance communications. People need to come to that decision on their own."
Inquire about a trial period
Your loved one may not realize how many of their favorite sounds they aren't hearing anymore until they hear them again. Many states require a 30-day free trial period for hearing aid consumers, which allows them to wear and become accustomed to the devices at no financial risk. Even if your state doesn't require this, many hearing centers and hearing aid manufacturers do so anyway.
Trial periods are a great way to decide which model and technology is best for your hearing loss. During the trial period, you'll be able to have your device adjusted to accommodate any problems you're encountering, switch to a different product that fits your needs better, or get a complete refund. To locate a clinic in your area, visit HealthyHearing.com.
Overcome the issue of cost
If cost of hearing aids is the central reason preventing you, there are options. Check with your insurance company first. Most private plans do not cover costs associated with the purchase of hearing aids; however, legislation in many states is evolving to include hearing healthcare. Currently, 19 states now require their health benefit plans provide some type of hearing aid coverage. Legislation is pending in several others.
If your insurance company does not provide this coverage, check with your hearing center to see if they offer an affordable payment plan. Veterans should check with the local Veteran's Administration Office. Others who meet income requirements may qualify for Medicaid coverage or local programs administered by civic and philanthropic organizations such as the Lion's Club. Those who are still employed should check with their state Vocational Rehabilitation office to see if they qualify for assistance.