Grief and accepting hearing loss
Grief is an intrusive emotion. It settles deep in our nooks and crannies, slipping out randomly and without warning. At times we feel as though we will never escape its heavy embrace; other days we are unaware of its presence. Grief is a natural part of the human condition. Not many of us get through life without experiencing it at some point; however, everyone moves through the process differently.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swedish-American psychologist, wrote about five psychological stages terminally ill patients commonly experience in her book On Death and Dying in 1969. At its core, the book is about how we process loss. Therefore, these stages can be applied to other painful life-changing experiences such as divorce, the death of a loved one—even coming to terms with hearing loss.
It's important to keep in mind that not everyone will experience all these stages, and the order of how you experience them can be unpredictable, too. However, the five stages are quite useful for improving self-awareness of how you or a loved one may be coping with a diagnosis of hearing loss. That anger you may feel? Quite normal. So is sadness.
Stage 1: Denial
In many situations, especially with older adults, hearing loss occurs gradually. You may not realize you haven't heard the birds sing outside your bedroom window lately (good news: if you're a serious birder, hearing aids help birders). Can you remember the last time you heard the sound your vehicle's turn signal makes? Do you keep thinking everyone around you is mumbling? In other words, you may think your hearing is just fine until a friend or family member calls it to your attention that's it not them, it's you. Even then, it's normal to want to deny the obvious.
You may tell yourself "My hearing isn't that bad" or "I've had a cold lately. My ears must be stuffy." Even those who relent and see an audiologist for a hearing test wait an average of seven years after their hearing loss is diagnosed before purchasing their first set of hearing aids.
Stage 2: Anger
Once you can no longer deny you're not hearing well, you may move into the second stage of grief—anger. You might be upset about having to add another doctor to your growing list or the money you have to spend on tests and medical devices. You may become angry with family members who continually ask you to down the volume on the television or insist you have your hearing checked by a health professional.
In the case of hearing loss, it's important to realize the stages of grief can apply to all family members as well as the one who's lost their hearing. This is especially true in this particular stage. Realize that your family members may be angry, too. They may think you're ignoring them on purpose—or have a hard time understanding why you won't make an appointment to see the doctor.
Regardless, it's important for all affected parties to work through the anger. If you're the one with hearing loss, consider talking to a trusted friend or counselor about what you're feeling, writing in a journal or exercising to release stress and tension.
Stage 3: Bargaining
After the anger has passed, it's common to enter the bargaining stage and search for ways to restore normal hearing. Maybe it's a promise you make to yourself to wear hearing protection when you're pushing the lawn mower or turn down the volume on your car stereo.
Depending on the type of hearing loss you're experiencing, the reality is you may never hear normally again. The good news: If your hearing loss is associated with presbycusis (old age hearing loss) or another sensorineural condition, you are most likely a perfect candidate for hearing aids. Your audiologist can make that determination following an extensive hearing test.
Stage 4: Depression
If you're feeling a bit depressed about your hearing loss, you're not alone—especially if you're an older adult. When it becomes difficult and exhausting to participate in daily conversations with friends and loved ones, it's natural to want to avoid those situations. Knowing we've lost something valuable, like our hearing, can make us sad—no matter what our age. Not only does hearing loss mean one of your five senses isn't as sharp as it used to be, it may also contribute to a loss identity.
Hearing health professionals know untreated hearing loss can lead to anxiety, depression, paranoia and social isolation. It's one of the reasons they stress the importance of maintaining contact with friends and family as we age.
Stage 5: Acceptance
The final stage of grief is acceptance. In the case of those with a hearing impairment, that means you've accepted your physical limitations You may realize that for years you became codependent on your partner who has been compensating for your hearing loss on your behalf and it's time for change. Hopefully, you've elected to consult with a hearing health professional and are a candidate for one of the numerous ways of improving your ability to hear. You are never too old for hearing aids. If your audiologist has recommended hearing aids and you've decided not to purchase them, you may want to reconsider. If your hearing loss is severe or profound, you may also be a candidate for cochlear implants (even if you're older).
Recent research confirms a direct link between hearing aid usage and improved quality of life. Most hearing aid users report higher levels of happiness and say hearing aids have significantly improved their relationships with family and friends and given them a greater sense of independence. Research also shows that hearing aids also have health benefits, such as reduced rates of depression, social isolation and the risk of falls.