In 1819 Thomas Jefferson wrote, “My hearing is distinct in particular conversation, but confused when several voices cross each other, which unfits me for the society of the table.” The social isolation described by Jefferson may lead to depression and dementia. As has been noted by the Alzheimer’s Association, “the brain loves company.”
Hearing loss has serious health implications that go well beyond the social. It has been found that loss of brain tissue may result from hearing loss. Hearing loss is also associated with poor balance and falls, hospitalizations and early mortality. The elderly may be most at risk for these sequelae. Older adults with hearing loss are 2.39 times as likely to fall as those with normal hearing.
The challenges of hearing loss have been exacerbated by the pandemic, but they are not new, and will remain when COVID-19 is just a bad memory. With vital public health measures, new challenges have emerged. Masks are a barrier to effective communication for people with hearing loss, who may rely, at least in part, on lip reading. When we go to the supermarket, cashiers wear masks and stand behind plexiglass shields, which muffle sounds and hide lips, making it impossible for people with hearing loss to communicate. If we go to the doctor or the hospital, we cannot bring someone with us to help communicate with doctors and staffs who are wearing masks and who may not be educated about the needs of people with hearing loss, or about technology that will facilitate meetings.
For many, work and socializing must be done remotely, using tools such as Google Meet and Zoom. Although not as good as those provided by a live captioner, the captions on Google Meet are extraordinarily helpful. Zoom, the most-used platform, will soon provide free captioning. When Zoom isn’t captioned, try placing your iPhone next to your computer and using the free Otter.ai app to transcribe speech to text. Android phones have a similar app, Google Transcribe.
It is estimated that forty-eight million Americans have hearing loss. Yet hearing aids are used by only one in five people who would benefit. On average, people wait seven years after the onset of hearing problems to get hearing aids. Hearing loss has been shown to negatively impact nearly every aspect of our lives, so it is important not to wait. As with most medical conditions, the earlier hearing loss is detected, the better the chances are that something can be done to help. If you are worried that wearing a hearing aid will make you look old, or infirm, consider how NOT wearing a hearing aid will make you look when you respond inappropriately to questions or conversations which you have not heard accurately.
Many people purchase hearing aids and never use them, possibly because they are not satisfied when they first try them. It is of course necessary to become accustomed to the new sounds you are hearing, but it is also likely that the hearing aids will need adjustments- tweaking of the programs. So, if your hearing aids don’t meet your expectations, make a list of the situations in which they fall short. Then return to your audiologist for adjustments. And a word about expectations. It is a cliché, but true, hearing aids are not like eyeglasses, which essentially enable normal vision. Hearing aids will not give you 20-20 hearing.
If you suspect a hearing loss, it is important to see a hearing health care or medical professional for a full evaluation. If you do have a hearing loss, become assertive about asking for assistance or accommodations you may need.
The Hearing Loss Association of America has been in the forefront of advocacy efforts to help us face the daily challenges of hearing loss. It is our hope that technology such as captioning will become the new normal even after the threat of COVID has disappeared. We are looking forward to returning to live theater and the movies. But those of us with hearing loss can only fully enjoy those performances when there is captioning and/or hearing loops. Most Broadway shows are now captioned on a free app called GalaPro. Through TDF’s Theater Accessibility Program, you can receive notice of open captioned performances at reduced prices. Many movie theaters have devices that enable access to closed captions, but you have to ask. Some theaters and concert auditoriums have hearing loops, which provide clear sounds if you have a telecoil in your hearing aid or cochlear implant. Planning to go to a museum? Before you go, check with the museum about its accommodations for improved accessibility. Information about many of these resources is available on the HLAA website, hearinglossnyc.org.
At meetings of the HLAA-NYC chapter, in addition to learning from audiologists and surgeons about hearing aids and assistive devices, members discover ways to engage in cultural opportunities. The meetings are an opportunity to improve your ability to cope with the challenges of hearing loss and to meet others who face the same challenges. For more information go to hearinglossnyc.org.
Jonathan Taylor is President of the NYC chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America.
As with most medical conditions, the earlier hearing loss is detected, the better the chances are that something can be done to help.