Challenging Conversations: Hearing Loss as Seniors Age
Talking Through a Hearing Problem
There you are, trying to have a conversation with an older relative, when every one of your questions or comments yields nothing but a slight nod or smile. Don’t they care about their grandchild’s first home run or what kind of food to order for takeout tonight? Are they just being rude, or are they not feeling well? What’s wrong?
The most likely explanation: they can’t hear you. It’s estimated that 25% of adults aged 55 to 64 have disabling hearing loss, which shoots up to a full half (50%) of adults aged 75 and older. Compare this with only 2-8.5% of adults aged 45 to 64, and you can understand why age plays such a significant role in hearing problems.
But what can you do about it? Seniors are often defensive about their hearing loss (if they acknowledge it at all), believing it to be a leading indicator of physical deterioration. If they can just fake their way through conversations with non-specific responses, maybe nobody will notice they can’t actually hear what’s being said.
The more important conversation is the one you must have with your loved one about their hearing loss. After all, hearing affects social connections/relationships and those connections/relationships impact quality of life. With a loaded issue such as hearing loss, the conversation is bound to be a fraught one. Here’s some advice for a successful talk:
Don’t Surprise Them in the Moment
In all likelihood, someone with hearing loss already knows something’s wrong. Those nods and smiles – they’re attempts to cover up the condition. If you spring your realization on them – “hey, I really think you need your hearing checked” – they’re more apt to become defensive, pointing to pieces of conversation that they did hear. You’re better off taking note of the problem and making a plan to address it in a less charged way later on.
Don’t Talk Down
Seniors are adults, not children. The temptation with hearing loss, however, is to slow things down and oversimplify your concerns and recommendations. Do not give in to this temptation. As already discussed, seniors likely know that something’s wrong and are straining to avoid special treatment. So, talk to them like the adults they are, explaining things calmly and clearly in your usual tone of voice. They will be more receptive to the message.
Don’t Crowd Them
This is not an intervention. Seniors can’t control their hearing loss any more than you can control a balding head or wrinkling skin. A one-on-one conversation is most appropriate, obviously in a place with minimal competing sounds. Make a plan, make it private, and make it as comfortable as possible for your loved one. In their home or as part of a quiet outdoor activity are the most conducive environments for an honest, direct conversation.
Don’t Provide a Solution before Discussing the Problem
When confronted with a problem as obvious to fix as hearing loss, you may want to move immediately past the problem to the solution: get to a doctor and get hearing aids. But for seniors who haven’t yet acknowledged their problem (out loud at least), this can be a bridge too far. You’ll want to find some common ground first, discussing in what situations the hearing loss is most pronounced and effecting, how it makes the sufferer feel, and why it’s truly a problem that needs to be addressed. Once you’re on the same page and there’s a clear link established between hearing loss and a diminished quality of life, the foundation has been set to discuss what to do about it.
Don’t Assume One Conversation is the End
No matter how it goes, the conversation is just the beginning. There may need to be additional talks. There will likely be doctor visits as well as fittings and adjustments with audiologists. Make sure your loved one knows you’re all in. The love and support you provide in this moment will extend to and through the application of a solution. You will address concerns as they come up – “I’ll look even older with a hearing aid!” – and you’ll let them have their space when it’s needed. This is an ongoing dialogue, and one that will hopefully improve your relationship, not shatter it.
Now Hear This
As we’ve seen, hearing loss is often an embarrassing topic, especially for seniors suffering through it. The key, as with many aspects of elder care, is love and support. Let’s summarize how these manifest in the conversation you should have with your loved one:
- Take things out of the moment – realize that an attack will harden their defensiveness
- Talk to adults like adults – use a straightforward and direct approach with an even tone of voice
- Plan out where and when to talk – make it someplace private and comfortable, and one-on-one only
- Listen instead of problem-solve – understand concerns, ask questions, and find a foundation for addressing the problem
- Be there, be there, be there – keep the conversation going and shower them with love and support through the entire process
We know this may not be a fun conversation, but it’s a necessary one. Quality of life is important and being able to hear is one of the most important determinants to quality of life. Your loved one may not thank you now, but they will in the many conversations that follow.