Hearing is a degenerative sense, meaning that it naturally deteriorates with age. The tiny hairs in our ears (called stereocilia) that process sound become damaged with age and exposure to noise. However, some aging people lose their hearing more quickly or profoundly than others.
Hearing loss has significant emotional and physical effects on aging people; it can be not only isolating and depressing, but also dangerous. As a caregiver, it is important to understand these hearing-related changes so you can make accommodations that improve quality of life.
The Effects of Hearing Loss on an Aging Person
- Feelings of isolation, withdrawal from relationships or social interaction because of an inability to fully participate in conversations, especially in loud settings such as social gatherings.
- Depression due to changes in social abilities.
- Confusion when giving and receiving information, such as a doctor’s instructions.
- Anger, frustration or irritability.
- Embarrassment: Others will often assume that the presence of hearing aids is indicative of mental decline, and may talk down to or engage less with a person who wears hearing aids.
- Dizziness and increased likelihood of falls (the inner ear plays a significant role in balance).
- Inability to hear emergency alarms and sirens.
- Cognitive decline: Isolation from conversation and entertainment can cause mental impairment in hearing-impaired people.
How can you help your hearing-impaired loved one be happier, more comfortable, and safer?
- Make sure your loved one makes regular trips to a hearing specialist so that they can be given proper treatment (such as hearing aids).
- Actively engage your loved one in stimulating conversation, and encourage family and friends to do the same.
- Play challenging games with your loved one to keep them mentally fit.
- Install rails and bars throughout your loved one’s living area to decrease the likelihood of falls. Also consider providing a cane or other stability device to offset dizziness and vertigo.
- Install alarms and other emergency devices that have a visual component (such as a flashing light). Test these alarms around your loved one to see if they are loud and bright enough for them to reliably notice.
- Plan social gatherings that are small, low-key and fairly quiet. This will allow your loved one to continue actively engaging socially without being overwhelmed by loud sounds
- Have a health advocate who is not hearing-impaired attend doctor’s visits with your loved one. This will ensure that they have full understanding of whatever medical information they are given.