Can't Hear You!

Addressing Hearing Loss May Improve Care of Older Adults

In Hearing Loss by Jennifer Douberly, Au.D.

Hearing Loss May be Common But It Is Not Harmless

Hearing loss is so much more common than many people know. Almost 14% of the U.S. population over the age of 18 lives with it to some degree. And the likelihood that someone will be affected by it increases steadily with age. Over a quarter of everyone aged 50 and over suffers from it. More than 1/3 of everyone 65 and above suffers from it. And by the time we look at our seniors, more than half of everyone aged 75 years old and older is affected by it. 

Sadly, less than 20% of everyone who endures disabling hearing loss seeks and maintains appropriate treatment. The consequences of failing to do so extend into all aspects of one’s life. Besides the heightened safety risk of not just being less aware of your surroundings, it also throws off your balance. But beyond just physical safety it always comes with emotional, psychological, and even cognitive damages. 

Trouble following conversations motivates people, often subconsciously, to socially withdraw. This of course leads to feelings of isolation and loneliness, but also frustration and confusion. Often people do not realize that they are having trouble hearing and just feel confused and frustrated about why they feel confused and frustrated. This leads to depression, which leads to cognitive impairments. The neural pathways on which we depend to discern meaning quite literally rewrite themselves in an attempt to adapt to the new trouble hearing. 

Of course this is a troubling scenario for anyone to face. But the unique needs of seniors compound the difficulties. 

Communication Breakdowns

There are obviously all kinds of health concerns that commonly come with age. When we are children we feel like we can bounce back from anything and suffer little lasting consequences. But seniors not only feel the accumulated wear of the years on their bodies, they have a lot of decisions to make. And these decisions can have tremendous consequences on their quality of life. Obviously being deaf or hard of hearing increases the likelihood of miscommunication. Much of the nuance and subtlety can get lost and this is never more dangerous than when making medical decisions. 

Healthcare professionals must be aware of their patient’s unique and specific needs. For example, some patients may prefer sign language while others depend on their hearing aids. All require patience and clarity and the healthcare professionals must take the time and make the effort to identify the best means of communicating with each individual.

It is also not uncommon for people to mistake hearing loss for cognitive decline. This is true in everyday life, especially encountering strangers. But the healthcare industry is not immune to this bias. Performance on cognitive tests often depend on seamless communication. If the person administering the test does not know to account for hearing loss, this can result in a poor performance when in fact it was the means of administration that failed. 

Studies have shown that many people who were believed to suffer from cognitive decline and dementia improved their test scores and reversed these beliefs simply when provided with sufficient hearing aids. Someone coping with hearing loss is also likely to get agitated when attempting to follow instructions and this nervousness further complicates the accuracy of the results. 

The Most Important Final Decisions 

Growing old comes with a lot of complicated decisions. All kinds of factors such as wealth and family support help dictate what is correct for each person. Whenever possible, these difficult conversations should be had before the need arises so that everyone involved can ponder the consequences of their choices. Some people may eventually need a caretaker who can communicate via sign language. Other people may need a long term care facility oriented towards those with trouble hearing. Each of these comes with a price and the value of such a price is different depending on each person’s circumstances. 

As communication deteriorates these conversations become more difficult. When medical emergencies occur, everything is simplified by all relevant parties knowing exactly what is expected of them and respecting the patient’s wishes. 

Difficult as it may be to believe when it happens in close proximity to you, no one lives forever. But with appropriate care and attention to detail no one should need to endure any increased suffering due to the effects of hearing loss. Make a plan today