How to help those with hearing loss help themselves
If you are a caregiver to someone with hearing loss, you are well aware of the challenges that hearing loss and the use of hearing aids present. Getting an individual to admit they have hearing loss, to see a hearing healthcare professional and then actually wear the hearing aids can seem insurmountable. But the results of a new research study out of the University of Missouri, along some helpful tips from hearing care professionals, can help you and your patient or loved one along the path toward better hearing.
First, know this: If you’re struggling to get someone you know to get hearing help, you are not alone. Of 26.7 million people over age 50 who have hearing loss, only one in seven actually uses hearing aids, according to Dr. Frank Lin, assistant professor of otolaryngology and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University. And on average, a person has already had trouble hearing for seven to 10 years before they agree to see a hearing care professional.
In a 2012 New York Times article, Dr. Eric Hagberg, former president of the Academy of Doctors of Audiology, offers a few tips to help convince a person to seek help with their hearing. “Stop being a living hearing aid,” he says. “Everybody has one - a seemingly helpful caregiver, husband or wife who feeds back the information so the other person doesn’t need to seek help.” Simply put, too often loved ones enable those with hearing loss by shouting and repeating themselves. Once the enabling stops, it is often easier for an individual with hearing loss to accept that there is a problem and to seek help.
Dr. Hagberg also advises, “I tell patients who deny they have a problem, even after testing, to go home and pay attention to every time they say, ‘What?’ or they miss the punchline on TV or ask people to repeat something. They usually come back in a week.”
Next, it can be helpful to emphasize the medical benefits of hearing aid use, as well as the risks of non-use. For example, like exercise for your brain, the use of hearing aids improves cortical conditioning. What does this mean? Simply put, a decline in hearing may accelerate atrophy in those portions of the brain that we use to understand speech. In other words, it's a case of “use it or lose it." There are other health risks as well; hearing loss can lead to sadness, isolation, frustration, and depression, not to mention physical danger to yourself or loves ones if you can’t hear an alarm, a car coming or someone calling for help.
It’s important to begin a dialog, but by all means do not nudge or nag. Let the person know how much you miss them being a part of the conversation. Also, an introduction to someone who has already begun the use of hearing aids and has had a positive experience can go a long way toward encouraging an individual with hearing loss to seek help.
What happens after that? Unfortunately, studies show that only 40 percent of people who have hearing aids actually use them. Reasons for not wearing hearing aids include discomfort, whistling sounds, vanity, etc. But there is good news; A groundbreaking study conducted by Kari Lane, assistant professor at MU Sinclair School of Nursing, shows that an adjustment program called Hearing Aid Reintroduction (HEAR) brought significant results. Participants of the study, all of whom reported in the beginning being “unsatisfied” with their hearing aids, gradually increased both the length of wearing time and the complexity of the sounds they were exposed to. By the end of the study, 60 percent of participants reported being satisfied, and over 50 percent were able to increase their usage from zero to four hours.
It’s important to be realistic about expectations when it comes to the use of hearing aids. For example, hearing aids will not filter out cocktail party chatter or background noise in a restaurant. Also, unlike putting on a pair of eyeglasses, putting in hearing aids is not an immediate panacea. They require a period of adjustment, increasing wearing time in gradual increments. Once an individual has hearing aids, they will need tweaking and adjustments until they are satisfactory, as well as regular maintenance, cleaning and readjustments so they continue to work properly. Despite this they can significantly improve quality of life for those with hearing loss and their loved ones.
Above all remember that treating hearing loss is a process. Being patient, following your hearing health care professional’s instructions and allowing for a period of adjustment will go a long way toward bringing those with hearing loss back into the conversation and allowing them to re-engage in life.