5 Easy Ways to Support People with Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is often minimized, considered a normal part of aging rather than a life-changing condition, but addressing and maintaining hearing health is a critical part of aging well. People of all ages have hearing loss, but the prevalence of hearing loss rises with age.

According to the NIDCD (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders) 8.5% of adults ages 55 to 64 have hearing loss. This number jumps to 25% in adults ages 65 to 74 and 50% in adults ages 75 and older. When working with older adults, understanding how to support people with hearing loss is a critical part of the job.

Prevalence of Hearing Loss is Rising Globally

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 5% of the world’s population—or 430 million people—have disabling hearing loss. Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) estimates that 48 million live in the United States. By 2050, WHO estimates that more than 700 million people will have disabling hearing loss.

This is bad news for overall health because hearing loss is associated with many health issues including diabetes (hearing loss is twice as common in people with diabetes), cardiovascular disease (a significant association was found between low-frequency hearing loss and cardiovascular disease and risk factors) and a higher risk of falls (people with a 25-decibel hearing loss, classified as mild, were nearly three times more likely to have a history of falling).

Hearing loss also is correlated with higher incidences of dementia. According to a 2010 Johns Hopkins study, even those with mild hearing loss are twice as likely to develop dementia and this likelihood increases with higher degrees of hearing loss.

Untreated hearing loss can sometimes be mistaken for dementia because the two conditions manifest in similar ways: confusion, answering questions inappropriately, and disinterest in socializing. Hearing screenings can help determine the difference, but treatment is sometimes difficult because people don’t want to admit they have trouble hearing. Among adults ages 70 and older who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than one in three has ever used them.

How to Support People with Hearing Loss

People with hearing loss are not helpless, but good two-way communication requires the support of others. Here are some ways you can help support people with hearing loss.

Understand What Hearing Aids Can and Cannot Do

People often think that hearing aids work like glasses—once they are on one’s hearing snaps into focus like images do for vision. This is not the case. Hearing aids make things louder, but they don’t provide the same clarity of sound as normal hearing. They also are not mind readers. In a noisy setting, hearing aids amplify all sounds, not just speech, which can sometimes make conversation more difficult.

Improper expectations can lead to frustration. Communication partners may feel that the people with hearing loss are not “trying hard enough to hear,” while people with hearing loss may think their hearing aids “just don’t help.” Neither is true. Both sides of the conversation must be willing to use additional strategies for better communication. See tips later in this article as well as in our book “Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss.”

Keep Devices in Working Order

Due to their small size, hearing aids are difficult to maintain properly for many older adults. Batteries are tiny and wax guards are even tinier, but both must be changed regularly for hearing devices to function properly. Rechargeable batteries are becoming more popular and new over-the-counter products, some by consumer electronics companies, may provide easier-to-operate alternatives. Already, Apple’s AirPods Pro can be used as quasi-hearing devices when in Transparency mode.

Help Older Adults Learn More About Living Well With Hearing Loss

Connect older adults to peers through Hearing Loss Association of America or a similar group. Clients benefit from camaraderie and learn tips for better communication. Since the start of the pandemic, many support groups meet virtually. Books and films about hearing loss can also help. Recommend documentaries about the lived hearing loss experience such as “We Hear You” and survival guides like “Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss.” Both will help older adults understand what to expect from hearing loss and how to live better with it.

Use Communication Best Practices

Small changes in behavior can make the difference between a satisfying conversation and a challenging one. Use these tips when speaking with people who have hearing loss.

  • Get their attention before speaking so they don’t miss the first few words.
  • Watch for comprehension. If they are leaning toward you or looking confused, ask them how you can adjust your speaking style to make it easier for them to understand.
  • Provide context. If they know the conversation is about clothing, it will be easier to fill in the first consonant of “-oot” to make suit rather than hoot or loot.
  • Speak clearly and at a normal pace. Overly slow or shouted speech distorts the mouth, making lipreading more challenging.
  • Keep your mouth visible to aid with lipreading.
  • Adjust the surroundings as needed (noise down, lights up).
  • Take turns speaking. Overlapping speech is very difficult to decipher.
  • Repeat or rephrase as needed to ensure comprehension.
Encourage the Use of External Accommodations

Many people with hearing loss are not aware of the many technologies available to help them hear better in public spaces. Hearing loops and captioning devices are often available at lectures, theaters and even museums, but often go unused. Educating oneself and one’s clients about these life-enhancing tools will help keep them connected to the people and activities they enjoy.

Hearing loss and older adults go hand-in-hand. Providing hearing loss support will result in better serving this important and growing population.

Shari Eberts is a passionate hearing health advocate and internationally recognized author and speaker on hearing loss issues. She is the founder of Living with Hearing Loss, a blog and online community for people with hearing loss, and an executive producer of “We Hear You,” an award-winning documentary about the hearing loss experience. Her book, “Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss” (co-authored with Gael Hannan), is a survival guide for living well with hearing loss. Eberts has adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Connect with Shari: Blog, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter.

For more on health equity issues, including hearing loss, tune in from July 18–22 to ASA’s Generations Forum: “Promoting Health Equity in Aging.”