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How to Handle Family Gatherings with Hearing Loss

B. Maya Kato, MD

Family gatherings should be a joyous time of celebration, spent with loved ones, and reconnecting with friends and family. Grandparents delight in seeing their grandchildren.  Many of us catch up with those we haven’t seen since last year.

However, these gatherings can be less than pleasant for some individuals. Hearing-impaired individuals, for one, have difficulty socializing in such environments. This past holiday season, did you notice that Aunt Susan didn’t seem to get the jokes, or that Grandpa spent most of the evening alone in his easy chair, rather than join in the conversation? Did you wonder what could possibly be wrong?

Those loved ones may have a hearing loss, and noisy situations can be very difficult. Relatives with hearing loss may become frustrated because they are unable to understand the conversation, and feel left out, or opt not to participate in the celebration at all. Hearing impaired individuals are prone to depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

What to Do?

Learn to recognize when a loved one may be having difficulty hearing.
Signs include:

  • Frequently asking people to repeat themselves.
  • Having trouble understanding women and children.
  • Looking at a person’s lips, rather than their eyes, during conversation.
  • Contributing inappropriately to the conversation or answering questions incorrectly.
  • Appearing to “tune out” or sitting alone.

Create an environment to facilitate better hearing:

  • Get the person’s attention first, making them aware that you will be initiating a conversation.
  • Look directly at them when speaking. Hard-of-hearing individuals rely on lip-reading and other visual cues.
  • Move the conversation to a quieter location.
  • If you are asked to repeat yourself several times, try to rephrase your comments. Some sounds may be easier to understand than others.
  • Consider using paper plates and plastic eating utensils instead of china and flatware to cut down on the amount of background noise while the family is gathered at the table.

When the time is right, suggest your loved one see a physician about their possible hearing loss. 

The FDA recommends that you see a medical doctor first. Hearing loss is a medical condition, and has a myriad of causes, which may be as simple as wax impaction, fluid in the ear, ear infections, age, or noise trauma; or more complex conditions such as perforation of the eardrum (rupture or puncture), cholesteatoma (bone-destructive cyst of the ear), vascular tumors, Meniere’s disease, nerve tumors, or brain tumors.

Only a physician can diagnose the exact cause of hearing loss, and only a physician can order MRI or CT scans and prescribe medication to treat the ear condition. Without proper medical guidance from a physician, one can spend thousands of dollars on hearing aids, and miss the diagnosis of a correctible, underlying medical condition.

If cleared by the physician, encourage your family member to pursue hearing aid amplification. 

According to a comprehensive research study conducted by the Better Hearing Institute (BHI), today’s technically advanced, sleekly designed hearing aids have a significantly positive impact on social and emotional health. This study of more than 2,000 hearing aid users looked at 14 specific quality of life measures. The results of the study found many positive effects of hearing aid amplification:

  • 80% of hearing aid users are satisfied with the changes that occurred in their lives specifically because of their aids;
  • 82% would recommend hearing aids to their friends;
  • 91% felt that their hearing aids satisfactorily improved their communication in one-to-one situations;
  • 85% were satisfied with improved communication in small group settings;
  • 80% reported improvement in their ability to understand the television;
  • >50% said their hearing aids improved their relationships at home, their social life, and their ability to join in groups;
  • 40% noted improvements in their sense of safety, self-confidence, feelings about self, sense of independence, and work relationships;
  • 25-33% said they even saw improvements in their romance, sense of humor, cognitive skills, and mental, emotional, and physical health.

“This survey clearly reveals how dramatically people’s lives can improve with the use of hearing aids,” says Sergei Kochkin, PhD, Executive Director of the BHI. “The findings of this nationally representative survey are both timely and encouraging—particularly given that an increasing number of Americans are suffering from noise-induced hearing loss at increasingly younger ages. Today’s hearing aids are a tremendous asset to people with even mild hearing loss who want to remain active and socially engaged throughout their lives.”

Modern hearing aids are vastly different from their predecessors. “Today’s hearing aids are about staying young, not growing old.” Kochkin advises, “If you want to keep your mind sharp and life complete, don’t leave hearing loss unaddressed.”

Dr. Kato is the founder of The Ear Institute in Palm Desert. Her top priority is improving the quality of life of her patients. Dr. Kato can be reached at: 760-565-3900.

References: 1) Kochkin. Marke-Trak VIII: 25 Year Trends in the Hearing Health Market. The Hearing Review, Oct. 2009; Vol 16, Number 11.; 2) The Consequences of Untreated Hearing Loss in Older Persons. The National Council On Aging. May, 1999. 

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