HLAA Workshop: Sounds for Seniors: an Honest Look at Hearing Loss in the 55+ Community

July 8, 2011 in Education & Outreach
 By Bonnie O’Leary  7/7/11

I chose this workshop because I have spent so many years providing outreach to the senior community here in Northern Virginia.  Sheila Adams of DeLand, Florida, gave a very interesting program with a personal touch to it.

Ms. Adams lost her hearing when she was a  young adult, getting her first hearing aid at the age of 27.  At 47, she received her first cochlear implant, and she got her second implant at the age of 55.    Her career as a school teacher was filled with struggles caused by her hearing loss, and she talked about overcoming  those challenges.

Ms. Adams spent some time talking about her own family whom she feels represents senior citizens in many ways.  Her mother has been hard of hearing all her life, but very active because she has worn hearing aids and used assistive listening devices.  She has been married to Ms. Adams’ father for 63 years, but he now has Parkinson’s disease which causes him to speak softly and makes it harder now for her mother to communicate with her father.   Both have a slight memory loss.  One of Ms. Adams’ aunts is 88, and can still hear.  Another aunt is 90 and has glaucoma as well as macular degeneration.  Just observing these and other aging family members, Ms. Adams sees a wide range of senior issues that impact socialization and communication.

Seniors were categorized as “young-old” (ages 55-75) and “old-old” (ages 75+) as Ms. Adams discussed successful aging.  Successful aging depends on how well seniors accept change and loss.  These can include physical, psychological, social, economic, and interpersonal.  A lot will depend on the senior’s endurance and attitude as well as manual dexterity.    An “old” senior, for instance, can’t go back to normal after bad sprains or broken bones.  Those sprains become the new normal, and they have to accept that they need help, which is not easy for seniors who have been active and independent throughout their lives.  Adapting to  hearing loss is also difficult, especially when the senior has had a lot of other issues to contend with, whether they be physical or emotional, such as grieving over the death of friends.  Sometimes, Ms. Adams has found in her own family that “one’s perception of health is a greater influencing factor than one’s actual health.” 

How aging impacts hearing

The accumulation of noise over the years eventually takes its toll in the inner ear, causing age-related hearing loss.  But there are other physical changes happening at the same time.  There is often more and harder wax that accumulates and is increasingly difficult to remove.  The ear canal narrows, and the sensitivity of the hair cells changes, often producing a greater sensitivity to noise.  With these changes, there is a slowing of the message-carrying ability of the ear which can produce changes in perception.  Cognitive changes include a shortened attention span as well as fatigue.

Quality of life

Staying connected is a huge party of successful aging, maintaining the relationships that are important to seniors.  Having something meaningful to do, a purposeful activity, is also important, as well as have opportunities for intellectual growth and learning.  Recreation and entertainment are a part of staying connected, and Ms. Adams remarked how ironic it is to have more time in retirement but also more limitations in our abilities to do things.  Finally, a senior’s quality of life is also enhanced by spiritual growth and as well as a sense of hope, of having some positive prospects.  Hearing loss can render all of these desired aspects of life very challenging.

Factors affecting how a senior handles hearing loss

The temperament and personality of a senior will play a large part in determining how well he or she handles hearing loss.  Someone who is passive and has never had a lot of self-confidence is likely to become more quickly withdrawn than someone who is an assertive, or even aggressive, type of individual.  The perception of need is also important, accepting that it’s okay to get help, that hearing loss does not make him weak or “less than”.  But some seniors are content with their situations, their connections, and therefore are in no hurry to get hearing aids or undertake any other self-help types of activities to compensate for their hearing loss.  It is important for seniors to understand the impact that their hearing loss has on others as well, on their families and friends who can feel very frustrated when trying to communicate too.  A senior’s “knowledge base” is another factor that contributes to how he or she will handle a hearing loss.  There is a lot of misinformation about hearing aids and cochlear implants which could shape a  senior’s attitude towards getting help.  An understanding of options is important, and whether or not there are resources within their communities.

Solutions

There are 4 A’s to consider:  Amplification, Advocacy, Assistive listening devices, and Alternatives.  Seniors need to know the sources for financial assistance for hearing aids if they need it, and audiologists need to be more vigilant and honest in the way they fit seniors for hearing aids.  Seniors should also be kept up to date on hearing resources available in theatres and  movies, how to use captioning on television, how to develop better communication strategies with their families and friends.

If you would like to e-chat with Sheila Adams about the impact of hearing loss on seniors, you can reach her at Sheila_ci777@yahoo.com.