How to Help Seniors With Hearing Loss

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(Image credit: Hard of hearing photo via Shutterstock)

"The Healthy Geezer" answers questions about health and aging in his weekly column.

Question: My wife just turned 70 and her hearing isn't what it used to be. Do you have any suggestions that will improve my ability to communicate with her?

Answer: About one in three Americans over 60 suffers from hearing loss, ranging from the inability to hear certain voices to deafness.

Presbycusis, one form of hearing loss, occurs with age. It can be caused by changes in the inner ear, auditory nerve, middle ear, or outer ear. Other causes include exposure to loud noise, heredity, head injury, infection, illness, certain prescription drugs and circulation problems such as high blood pressure.

Tinnitus, common in older people, is characterized by a ringing, hissing or roaring sound in the ears. It's frequently caused by exposure to loud noise or certain medicines. Tinnitus can accompany any type of hearing loss.

A hearing aid can help your wife. While it won't restore normal hearing, it will increase her awareness of sounds and what made them. A hearing aid magnifies sound vibrations. Larger vibrations are converted into signals that are sent to the brain. However, there are limits to the amplification a hearing aid can provide. And if the inner ear is too damaged, even large vibrations will not be converted into signals.

Since your wife's hearing seems to be a problem, she should have it checked by her personal physician. If her hearing has diminished, the doctor will probably refer her to an otolaryngologist or audiologist.

An otolaryngologist is a physician who specializes in treating the ear, nose and throat. An audiologist is a health professional who conducts tests to define hearing loss. Many otolaryngologists have audiologist associates in their offices.

Meanwhile, here are some tips that can help you get your words across to your wife:

  • Be patient.
  • Minimize or eliminate background noise before conversing with your wife.
  • Enunciate well without distorting your speech. Don’t mumble.
  • Be expressive. Using hand gestures and facial expressions will clue your wife in to what you're saying.
  • Position yourself four to six feet from your wife before you speak to ensure that she can see your face.  And don't cover your mouth or chew when you talk.
  • Ask your wife to repeat what you've said to make sure she understands you. Rephrase what you've said if she doesn't.
  • Speak at a normal tempo — not too quickly and not too slowly.
  • Speak more loudly, but don't shout. Shouting distorts your words.  Also, don't lower the volume of your voice at the end of a sentence.

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All rights reserved © 2013 by Fred Cicetti

Fred Cicetti is a contributing writer for Live Science who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter, rewriteman and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey: The Newark News, Newark Star-Ledger and Morristown Record. He has written two published novels:" Saltwater Taffy—A Summer at the Jersey Shore," and "Local Angles—Big News in Small Towns."