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Hearing loss affects the entire family

Contributed by | Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on hearing loss and families. Check back on Thursday for the author’s second article, "Ten rules for improving family communication."

 "I cannot understand what you are saying when you speak to me from another room." The words floated up the stairs and stopped me in my tracks. Hearing those words, which I have spoken thousands of times, coming patiently from my 14-year-old son's mouth, made me wince.

Line up of family photographs on a fireplace mantle
When you have hearing loss, it affects the
whole family.

I recognized those were my words. They were ones I'd said to him over and over for years. I had thoughtlessly made the mistake my family members so often make – speaking to someone in another room and expecting them to understand what was said. I felt embarrassed and humbled about my flippant error, but at the same time proud about the way he handled it. It was exactly the way I'd modeled it for my family so many times.

I've had significant hearing loss for almost two decades and I'm a licensed hearing care professional. I'm also the daughter of a person with significant hearing loss. I eat, breathe, work and sleep hearing loss and adaptive communication strategies. Of course, I know better than to talk to someone when they're in another room, whether they have hearing loss or not. But I had done it anyway.

Practicing communication skills

As human beings, we tend to get lazy with communication. This is especially true in families. We're often more casual in communication with our close loved ones than we are at work or in social settings. Even when we know better, we still sometimes speak when facing away from the person we're talking to, call out to someone in another room or otherwise flub an opportunity to be heard. It isn't purposeful. It's not carefully planned to make the other person feel slighted. It's just being normal humans, making common mistakes. The failure to communicate effectively can create relationship stress we just don't need or want in our lives.

Anyone can have trouble understanding spoken words – even people with normal hearing or those who compensate for hearing loss with hearing aids. This can have serious and far-reaching effects on any family. In my own family, I've tried to teach the kids to avoid saying "What?" when they don't understand someone. Instead, we say, "I don't understand what you are saying," and give the speaker an opportunity to change something in their delivery so they can be understood.

Hearing loss in families is sometimes untreated

I straddle both sides of this equation. I have hearing loss myself and I wear fantastic hearing aids. I'm also the daughter of a person with significant hearing loss who also has excellent hearing aids but frequently chooses not to wear them. I text my mother before going to her house to remind her to put in her hearing aids. Often she does and she can hear and converse with us right away when we walk in. When that happens, life is good.

Other times, though, my mother doesn't put in her hearing aids for our visit and she cannot understand a word we say. This doesn't stop her from asking questions, repeatedly, to which she cannot understand the answers. I keep a handwritten note in my purse that says "Mom, I will talk with you after you put in your hearing aids."

There's no question -- when a family member has a hearing loss, treated or untreated, the loss impacts the entire family. Even when using hearing aids, most people with hearing loss still struggle to understand speech in challenging listening conditions. What should you do? First, encourage your loved one to see a hearing care professional for treatment. Second, lay some ground rules for communication.

Two simple rules for family communication

Family communication is vital, whether hearing loss affects the family or not. Sure, we all get lazy and we all make mistakes. It's also ridiculous to think someone with perfect hearing is going to understand you when they're on another floor of the home, you have your face stuck in a cupboard, they are walking away or there is background noise. So I strive to make clear communication a priority.

As a person with hearing loss, I've spent years trying to model these two rules:

  1. If you are the speaker, it's your job to be sure what you're saying is being heard and understood. If it isn't, you need to fix it.

  2. If you are the listener, it's your job to let the speaker know whether you've heard and understood.

Be nice to each other

When your family member has hearing loss, you may encounter the frustration of repeating yourself, the feeling of being ignored and separation from the relationship. The most important communication rule in my family is to be forgiving when someone makes a mistake, because no one is perfect. Be calm, even when patience is wearing thin. No one is at fault here. Communication is what makes us human, and with that sometimes comes communication mishaps. The sooner we develop an attitude of acceptance, the smoother it will go.

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