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The COVID-19 Hearing Loss Crisis

By Lisa Nathan Bellows, MA, CCCA
Transparent masks can enhance the dynamics of communications for those with hearing loss.

The coronavirus emergency has made life more dangerous and difficult for people worldwide. However, the extraordinary challenges experienced by the hearing impaired and deaf populations have not been addressed adequately to date by the media.

Listening is defined as an “active or intentional behavior involving the brain’s ability to decode and process communication.”1 Affecting approximately 48 million Americans,2 hearing loss, therefore, presents special needs for 20 percent of the U.S. population. With many people over the age of 60 at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, the impact of hearing loss and aging combined can have many negative social effects, especially on verbal communication between partners and family members. 

Strategies utilized to improve communication with a hearing impaired individual have been well-documented in the literature and are important to consider at this critical time. The Cleveland Clinic3 suggests the following tips to improve dialogue (2019):

  • Gain the listener’s attention.
  • Maintain eye contact to convey the facial expressions. 
  • Keep hands away from the face.
  • Provide proper lighting.
  • Speak naturally and pausing speech when needed.
  • Rephrase a message.
  • Reduce background noise in the environment.

Now that society is facing COVID-19, hearing loss factors have been further compounded by an individual’s inability to read visual and contextual cues due to mandatory social distancing and the proper usage of protective face masking. New effective strategies can assist the hearing impaired during this emergency. In 2020, the Hearing Association of America4 has proposed the following coping tips:

  • Take a careful inventory of communication supplies. Be sure to stock up on all necessary accessories to keep hearing aids in good functional condition. You can easily replenish these items by contacting an audiology provider. Hearing aid batteries, wired receivers, dry aid kits, cleaning picks/brushes/wires, magnets for ease of dexterity, battery caddies and dry wiping cloths are still readily available. 
  • Explore telehealth options by contacting an audiology professional. Utilizing face-time calling strategies are particularly effective for hearing impaired individuals to facilitate lip and speech reading without any mask protection. Closed-caption phone communications enhance comprehension since the dialogue is read and not auditorily received.
  • Utilize curbside services when warranted to avoid unnecessary human exposures. Take advantage of cleaning, maintenance and repair services that are available to keep amplification, assistive listening devices and desiccants in optimal operational and clean conditions.
  • Consider the utilization of back-up older hearing aid devices, remote controls, and assistive listening devices, such as pocket-talkers or personal amplification products, during an emergency crisis with their appropriate fresh battery supplies and chargers.
  • Prepare an “Emergency Communication Kit” with a six-month supply of fresh batteries and cleaning tools for impending travel, surprise hospitalizations, earthquake or other critical situations.
  • Invest in a transparent FDA-approved face mask, if available. If such a product is unavailable, follow instructions to make a DIY project to produce an adequately protective face mask with a clear window. This enhanced strategy can preserve the “integration of speech cues”5 and can potentially enhance the dynamics of communication while protecting the individual from airborne viruses and information alerting the presence of any potential physical dangers.

Audiologists and other health care providers remain committed to serving the hearing-impaired population with service, support and education to promote the importance of hearing health and communication during these uncertain times. The hearing-impaired community is also encouraged to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local public health officials as warranted.

Lisa Nathan Bellows is an audiologist practicing in Palm Desert and a member of Desert Doctors. She can be reached at (760) 340.6494. For more information, visit www.DesertDoctors.org or call (760) 232.4646.

References:
1) Hearing Loss Conversation and the Brain; Posted in Blog, August 23, 2019 Bellows Hearing Institute.com;
2) The Growing Population with Hearing Loss; Sofia Enamorado, January 24, 2018 https://www.3playmedia.com/2018/01/24/growing-population-hearing-loss/;
3) Hearing Loss: Tips to Improve Communication with People with Hearing Loss-Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/4050-hearing-loss-tips-to-improve-communication-with-people-with–hearing-loss;
4) 7 Tips to Maintain Hearing Health Care Amid COVID-19 – LWW Journals Shari Eberts, https://journals.lww.com/thehearingjournal/blog/breakingnews/pages/post.aspx?PostID=364;
5) The Contribution of Different Cues of Facial Movement to the Emotional Facial Expression; jov.arvojournals.org https://jov.arvojournals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2121344

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