According to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 1 in 3 Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 have a hearing loss. Beyond that population, about half of those older than 75 years of age have some difficulty with hearing.
While there are many effective solutions to hearing loss such as hearing aids, cochlear implants and assistive devices, health care professionals must always remember to treat the whole person.
For example, let’s take the number of persons with hearing loss who experience depression. Studies often discuss the physical and psychological consequences of aging, but how often are the psychological and emotional needs of the late-deafened population discussed? Is the person of a normal body weight? Do they have an eating disorder related to their frustration with losing their hearing? Do they have co-dependency issues with alcohol or other substances? Has it been addressed? Has a bout of depression been attributed to another health problem when it may be due to the isolating nature of hearing loss?
Years ago when I lost my husband I went into therapy. I was surprised at how little the social worker knew about the consequences of hearing loss. While she thanked me for teaching her all that she ever knew about treating someone with hearing loss, she never discussed why I was engaging in emotional eating. All this made me wonder how much training psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers receive in dealing with hearing loss.
Another issue is factoring in how we feel about all the changes that come along with aging with a hearing loss? How has that affected our lives? Do we feel less attractive wearing a hearing device? Do we WEAR the device as much as we should? Do we socialize less because we aren’t informed about devices or venues that can help us function in situations that we thought were inaccessible to us? Do we feel embarrassed to tell friends we are missing what they are saying? Are our friends and family supportive of us? Do we feel a sense of disconnect because we have lost friends or family members at this time of life?
Hearing loss can be a real challenge. Those of us with hearing loss know about the big bluff. Someone tells us something once, then twice, then the third time we smile and pretend we are with them. Are we in denial of our hearing loss? Do we accept this new older late-deafened person we have become? Has the transition from a mild hearing loss to one that impacts us profoundly affected our lifestyle or our home life? Growing older can have it’s challenges. Have we pasted together who we were and who we are at this stage of life? Do we embrace that identity?
In an aging population, when we are experiencing our worst bout of hearing loss other physical or personal losses are occurring. In a strange way, if we use this tremendous loss as a learning experience, we end up more resilient. We must be our own advocate and seek solutions. But we can sure use a little coaching along the way. We need more health professionals who understand the complexities of hearing loss.
How can health professionals help?
Hospitals and nursing homes are filled with an aging population of people with hearing loss. Health professionals must learn how to communicate and treat people with hearing loss. Signage above the bed in hospitals and voice recognition/visual devices need to be installed. Nursing homes need to ensure patients are wearing their hearing devices, have working batteries and routine device checks. Dentists need to wear surgical masks with a clear view to help us read their lips. Psychologists must read up on the consequences of hearing loss in later life and remember to include their findings in treating the whole person. Doctors must have visual/vibrating devices to help patients know when their name is called in the waiting room. Printouts of instructions, a diagnosis and contact information should be routine. Text and email communications are long overdue.
All of this can help to prevent misdiagnosis. Most of all, professionals who are informed about the consequences of hearing loss help to promote a state of well being and inclusiveness for their patients. Baby boomers are change masters. They take a problem and seek out new and innovative solutions. The solution here is inclusiveness in healthcare. We are long overdue for new practices. Let’s all work for change and be the master of our own journey.