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Addressing Chronic Hearing Loss

How to get help if you're having trouble hearing

Hearing aidEven though chronic hearing loss is one of the most prevalent chronic conditions for people 65 and older, less than 20 percent seek help for it, says Michael Hefferly, PhD, an audiologist at Rush.

"For various reasons, people aren't always comfortable admitting they have a problem," he says.

Ignoring the problem can lead to disengagement from conversations and activities, which can dramatically affect your quality of life, he says. If you or a loved one experiences signs of hearing loss (see sidebar), now is the time to talk with an audiologist.

Primary care physicians can help arrange appointments for comprehensive hearing evaluations with audiologists. Audiologists assess the degree to which hearing loss is causing hearing problems and how these problems affect overall function and quality of life. Because communication is a shared activity, audiologists also assess how hearing problems impact family and friends.

Strategies for success

To improve your ability to hear important speech sounds, amplification through the use of a hearing aid or an assistive listening device (e.g., TV and phone amplifiers), or both, may be recommended.

However, it is important to recognize that the most appropriate type of hearing aid or assistive device is not just determined by your hearing loss but by your unique set of communication needs (for example, if you don't eat out, then technology to improve hearing at restaurants is not necessary).

Although the use of a hearing aid or an assistive listening device can be an important step toward improving hearing, it's not the only change that can make a difference.

"Building effective communication strategies is just as important toward success," Hefferly says. He offers the following advice to help listeners gain a better understanding of speech:

  • Try to understand the context of the conversation, not every word or sound.
  • Watch the speaker's lips, facial expressions and gestures while he or she speaks.
  • Position yourself to get a full view of the face, not just the profile, so you can see the speaker's lips and facial expressions. Nonverbal cues can be helpful.
  • Consider formal lip-reading instructions.
  • Ensure that your vision is adequate — with or without glasses.
  • Use a quiet room to talk. Reduce background noise by turning off the television or turning it down, closing a door or window, etc.
  • In public places, ask for any assistive listening devices that might be available. Movie theaters and playhouses often have devices that will amplify the performers' voices.
  • Explain your needs. Describe to others what helps you best to understand.
  • Be honest when you don't understand. If you only pretend to understand, speakers may think you are not interested in what they are saying.

Hefferly also offers the following advice for speakers on how to communicate more effectively with and be more sensitive toward people who have hearing loss:

  • Speak a little more slowly, but don't drag out your words or over emphasize your mouth movements. It is better to speak at a normal rate, but take short pauses between sentences and phrases. You'll be amazed at how well this works!
  • Face listeners, get their attention and do not hide your mouth with your hand or any other object.
  • Realize that beards and moustaches can interfere with the ease of lipreading.
  • Pay attention to the listeners for cues that they do not understand what you are saying.
  • Be patient with listeners; realize that they are exerting a lot of energy and concentration.
  • A good listener is interpreting gestures as meaningful, so avoid gestures that aren't relevant to the content of conversation or that distract listeners from reading lips and looking at facial cues.
  • In a group setting, take turns speaking; avoid interrupting others.
  • Announce the topic of conversation and indicate when a new topic is introduced.
  • Ask listeners if your communication with them can be made clearer in any way.