When your loved one starts to lose their hearing, a little love, patience, and understanding can go a long way.
After all, hearing loss is more than an inconvenience. It often brings a tide of emotions.
Worries about independence. For many older adults, it’s hard to accept the need for help. Your loved one spent decades as a self-sufficient, capable person at work and at home. The idea of needing help to do basic things may be upsetting.
When Colleen Szot, a 65-year-old writer in Minneapolis, started to lose her hearing, she worried it would affect her work. Most of her job involved talking over the phone, so she knew missing words could lead to problems.
Withdrawal or feeling isolated. Hearing loss can make it harder to socialize. People may not be able to follow conversations, or they may get tired of asking others to speak up. Rather than deal with uncomfortable situations, it’s common for them to stop joining in, says Ronna Fisher, founder of the Hearing Health Center in Chicago.
Fisher saw her father do that as he lost his hearing. “As it got worse, he withdrew into himself and became more isolated,” she says. “He didn’t want to go out to restaurants, movies, or socialize. He didn’t enjoy it and was often embarrassed by his missing the point or wrong responses.”
Depression or anxiety. Your loved one may be tearful or less responsive than usual. Their sleep patterns or weight may change. They may have less energy and not take care of themselves as well.
They may also deny there’s a problem or say things to make themselves feel better, like:
- “I can’t hear anymore, but at least my health is good.”
- “Everyone else is mumbling.”
- “My hearing isn’t really that bad.”
Refusing help. Even though hearing aids and other devices can be a big help, your loved one may resist. They may worry that it means they are officially “old” or that people will notice.
“First I worried that it wouldn’t work,” Szot recalls. “Then I worried that they would hurt.” On top of that, she remembered what her mother, who had hearing loss but never got help, used to say: “Only old people wear hearing aids.”
Changes in relationships. “My parents often fought over misunderstandings,” Fisher says. “We couldn’t watch TV as a family. My dad needed the volume so loud that no one else could stand to be in the same room.”
As Szot’s hearing loss got worse, her husband was frustrated by gaps in understanding, and it created tension.
What You Can Do
When your loved one begins to accept hearing loss, things may improve. Instead of struggling, they’ll adapt and take steps to manage it.
Five years ago, Szot decided to get hearing aids. Now she loves them. “Hearing aids have eliminated the need for me to ask, ‘What? What did he say?’ all the time. It has actually reduced my embarrassment,” she says.
No matter where your loved one is in the process, there are many ways you can support them.
Change your communication style.
- Always speak face-to-face.
- Get their attention or say their name before you talk to them.
- Don’t cover your mouth, chew gum or food, or smoke while you talk.
- Don’t shout.
- Speak clearly.
- Use facial expressions and gestures to add clarity.
- Avoid noisy areas.
- Pause the TV or move away from a loud dishwasher when you talk.
- Don’t speak from another room.
Be kind, don’t nag. Show understanding and support. Ask how you can help. “If you’re going to a concert or play, ask if she’d like to sit up close so she can hear,” Szot says.
She says her husband’s nagging about her hearing problems didn’t help. Instead, be gentle but supportive. Gently ask your loved one to think about having their hearing checked. Offer to go with them to the screening test.
If they get help, tell them you’re proud they took this step.
Don’t pretend the hearing aids don’t exist. Instead, show interest. Ask to see how they work, Szot says.
Be patient. Coming to terms with hearing loss is a process. It takes time.
“It may take a while for us to get there,” Szot says, “but we will.”
Get help. If your loved one continues to struggle, find help. Reach out to a therapist or a support group. Check the website of the Hearing Loss Association of America to look for groups that meet in your area.