Working in the field of Hearing Healthcare we sometimes find that we are just as much relationship counselors as we are a bridge to the technology that helps people to reconnect to the sounds of their life. Every patient who comes into the shop for hearing aids has many people standing behind them, who are a part of their community and/or family life, who are impacted on various levels by the hearing loss we’re trying to treat.

In evaluating patients with hearing loss and formulating treatment plans for them to follow under our care, we are focused on the type and severity of loss, pin pointing the correct technology for their loss, and educating them in the hopes of empowering them to be successful hearing aid wearers. In this process, however, we cannot lose sight of the importance of guiding them (and their loved ones!) toward improved habits for coping with hearing loss.

An exercise we incorporate into some of the Lunch and Learn events we hold throughout the year involves everyone in attendance plugging their ears with standard foam ear plugs, simulating a 20% or so hearing loss. We then read from a book or other prepared excerpt and ask our guests to give us feedback – could you hear and understand what we read? We move further away and read again. Less people can hear what was said. We turn our backs and move as far away as possible. Very few, if any, guests can hear what was said. We then ask everyone to remove their plugs and explain the point of the exercise: Even with a mild hearing loss, turning your back or speaking to someone with a loss from down the hall or across a large room can make it impossible for them to understand what is being said.

Every time we practice this exercise it is a treat to watch the reactions from hearing loss sufferers and their guests. The sufferers look smug. “See, that’s what I keep saying…see, it’s not just me, you can’t say it from down the hall” – their guests, usually a spouse, look sheepish. We take hearing for granted, so of course we say things to our loved ones while we’re watching TV or are washing a sink full of dishes with our backs turned…but the impact on a relationship of the frustration people feel at constantly having to repeat themselves cannot be swept aside as unimportant.

Spouses and live-in companions of hearing loss sufferers are an easy target, but friendships are impacted much the same way by hearing loss. On average, across the nation, by the time a person arrives at the test booth of a hearing care professional to get help for their hearing loss, they have needed hearing aids for seven years or more. In seven years’ time, a person can become fairly isolated from friends and activities they once enjoyed because of the barrier their loss presents to clear communication. How many times in seven years does a person not go out to bridge night, or to a family gathering at a noisy restaurant, because they know that they aren’t going to be able hear anything that is being said? How long is it, before friends and relatives stop asking if they’d like to come, assuming that the response will always be a grumpy “no”?

In that many years, how frustrated does a spouse, grown child or caregiver become at not being heard, to the point that it stops them from communicating the way they used to? We hear it all the time “He’s always barking at me because he can’t hear his own voice and I have to scream because he can’t hear me!” – it is saddening to think of how many hearing loss sufferers feel unnecessarily grumpy because they are yelled at all of the time and how many spouses/friends/caregivers feel as though they’ve been reduced to serving as “living hearing aids”…constantly repeating, filtering and yelling information so that the hearing loss sufferer can understand.

In steps the hearing healthcare provider. Evaluating and treating the loss with technology will always be the most effective tool we have to helping people get back on the road to healthy dialogue in their lives, but empowering the people who love our patients with tools to better connect cannot be forgotten.

What we tell our patients is common sense to a hearing care professional, but can profoundly impact the communications of our patients with family members and friends.

A quick guide for talking to someone with hearing loss:

  1. Stop what you are doing as best you can and face the person you are speaking to. Many people with hearing loss read lips, even if they don’t realize it, and being able to see your mouth while you are speaking can be crucial in making sense of what you are saying.
  2. Say the persons name, in a clear voice, to get their attention/make them look at you.
  3. Say what you are trying to communicate, slowly, annunciating, in a voice that is appropriately loud.
  4. Be patient. People with hearing loss want to hear, just as much as you want to be heard.

Hearing aids make a huge difference, but there is no replacement for forming habits that support healthier and more effective communication.