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Seniors worried about the stigma of hearing aids

Contributed by | Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Stigma has been defined as “the possession of, or belief that one possesses, some attribute or characteristic that conveys a social identity that is devalued in a particular social context.” 

The best way to avoid the stigma of 
"being older" is to get hearing aids and
stop asking "What?" all the time. 

For many older people that stigma, or diminishing of perceived value, comes in the form of hearing loss. And unfortunately, stigma is also a major impediment to seeking treatment. Many seniors believe if they admit their hearing loss, and subsequently agree to hearing aids, that they will look feeble or weak. There is no question that our culture worships at the altar of youth and vitality. So is it any wonder that older people with hearing loss are hesitant to admit it, let alone get hearing aids, for fear of appearing “old”?

Unfortunately, that is exactly the case; studies have shown stigma is a powerful barrier when it comes to seeking treatment for hearing loss, especially if that treatment involves wearing hearing aids. When several hundred seniors at a national conference were polled as to their reason for not wearing hearing aids, 51 to 67 percent said they were worried about being perceived as old or feeble. And some just worried that wearing hearing aids would make them look too conspicuous.

We should point out here that, interestingly, the majority of those who said they were worried about being judged by others admitted that they would not be likely to judge another person who wore hearing aids. A double standard? You bet. With hearing loss, as in other areas of life, we are often harder on ourselves than we are on others.

As a matter of fact, a study published by Margaret Wallhagen, Ph.D., illustrates that double standard, finding that hearing loss stigma is strongly associated with “feelings of altered self-perception." Some examples she cites are the perception of being “abled” verses disabled, and smart verses cognitively impaired. Among the subjects of the study, these perceptions were enough to cause a delay in seeking treatment.

And the study by Wallhagen breaks down the stigma even further, dividing it into three specific parts: alteration in self-perception, as mentioned above, along with ageism and vanity. Vanity most certainly comes in to play when it comes to seniors not wanting to “look” old, since over 50 percent of those polled at the national convention admitted to having cosmetic procedures, like Botox, for example, in order to appear younger.

In another study by Southall, Gagne, and Jennings entitled “Stigma: A negative and positive influence on help-seeking for adults with acquired hearing loss," the goal was to understand exactly how the decision to seek help or not to seek help was affected by stigma, or the perception of stigma.

Using audio-recorded, semi structured interviews, the study reached out to 10 members of a peer support group who had hearing loss in order to gain perspective on how it felt to have a “stigmatizing attribute.” The researchers were able to gauge the thoughts and feelings of the participants both before and after getting help with their hearing loss. It turns out the level of stress experienced by the participants, partly due to denial and attempts to conceal the hearing loss, eventually lead to an “unmanageable” situation, all due to the perceived stigma. The participants were afraid of being labeled, which delayed treatment.

In the study, what were termed ”mounting losses” also lead to higher stress levels than were manageable. The losses were both personal and professional; in their social lives, anger and resentment on both sides had caused relationships with family and friends to deteriorate, and at work there was a fear of demotion, termination or loss of responsibilities or duties due to hearing loss.

A lack of understanding of the challenges faced by those with hearing loss, whether from family, friends, co-workers or the general public, can lead to delay in treatment as well. Those who have regular interactions with people who lack understanding feel more stigmatized, thus are not as likely to seek treatment. It is not as easy for people to relate to hearing loss as it is to vision loss, for example, so empathy and understanding can be hard to come by.

Another possibility is that some of the stigma against hearing aids could come from the marketing strategy of stressing the invisibility of modern hearing devices. While that is certainly appealing on the surface, it might in actuality add to the stigma by subtly sending the message that hearing aids are something shameful that should be invisible.

The bottom line is that while the source of the stigma may differ, the stigma itself is overwhelmingly responsible for the decision to delay treatment. So what is the solution? Educating the general public, as well as those with hearing loss, on the challenges faced and the tremendous benefits of hearing loss treatment may turn the tide of negative thinking and facilitate empathy.

Want to appear younger? Fight the stigma, and wear hearing aids. After all, nothing ages a person more than continually saying, “What?” and asking people to repeat themselves. Also, wearing hearing aids means you can stay socially active, and continue to be active in your career. Make sure to get your hearing tested to establish a baseline, then yearly after that so your hearing care professional can monitor you for any changes.

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