Living with hearing loss can be challenging, not just for the person whose hearing is impaired, but also for those around them.
While a correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment can dramatically improve both quality of life and mental wellbeing in those experiencing hearing difficulties, the signs and symptoms of hearing loss often begin much earlier.
Because the onset can be slow, many individuals may not even notice they have a problem until their hearing loss has reached an advanced stage, but those around them may notice changes much earlier on. Early signs include difficulty hearing what others are saying, frequently misinterpreting what’s been said, asking people to repeat themselves, having to turn up the volume on devices louder than usual, and feeling tired from having to concentrate while listening.
If you suspect that someone you love has hearing loss, you’re not alone. Hearing impairments affect around 10 percent of the population in the US, and statistics show that most people wait seven years before getting a hearing test (opens in new tab), during which time their hearing loss progresses.
It can be difficult to watch someone you love struggling and it’s normal to feel unsure of how best to support them. The good news is that you don’t have to go through it alone. We spoke to Matthew Allsop, Partner and Operations Director at Harley Street Hearing (opens in new tab), to get his advice on how you can help.
1. Don't get frustrated
According to a research paper published in The Hearing Review (opens in new tab), hearing loss can place a strain on relationships and can be a major source of stress both for the person experiencing the hearing impairment and those around them.
"Studies show that hearing loss produces feelings of frustration, embarrassment, and distress in loved ones and in the relationship in general," explain the authors. People will often experience feelings of irritation or annoyance when they think that their hearing-impaired loved one isn’t listening to them or when they refuse to get help.
If you find yourself having to repeat things multiple times, it’s easy to become frustrated and to use phrases such as ‘never mind, it’s not important.’ Feeling this way is understandable, but try to resist statements that can make a hearing-impaired person feel worse.
Instead, remain calm and focus on communicating clearly, as outlined below.
2. Communicate clearly
Whether you’re talking about the big or small things of life, communication is key to any healthy relationship - but many of those vital moments of connection can be lost when one person has hearing loss. Over time, frustration and resentment can build, resulting in a decreased level of intimacy.
“Even talking to someone from another room with hearing loss is challenging,” says Allsop, adding: “Doing this if you suspect a loved one has a hearing loss will only make the both of you frustrated.”
While having a conversation with someone with a hearing impairment can add an extra layer of complexity, there are some simple things you can do to make things easier:
- Before you start speaking, get your loved ones attention with a tap or a wave
- Speak face to face rather than with your head or back turned
- Slow down your pace and speak clearly
- Move to a quiet environment with less background noise
- If your hearing-impaired loved one has better hearing in one ear than the other, try to remember which ear is better so you can position yourself accordingly
- Where possible, provide important details, such as dates and times, in writing - texting and email can be extremely helpful
- Think of ways you can communicate non-verbally, using facial expressions and gestures to provide context for what you’re saying
Hearing loss can create some unique communication challenges, but it doesn’t have to damage your relationship. Arming yourself with the above strategies can help you to become a more mindful participant during conversations with your loved one.
3. Be open and understanding
Feelings of impatience can be common amongst those supporting someone with hearing loss and can lead to the hearing-impaired person feeling like their loved ones don’t understand or care about what they’re going through.
For the most part, this is rarely the case. Instead, these feelings can often arise because family and friends don’t know what it’s like to struggle to hear.
Take the time to educate yourself and learn what it’s like to live with hearing loss. Don’t be afraid to ask your loved one if they would feel comfortable sharing their experiences and answering questions so that you can better support them. Learning about things we don’t understand and putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes can help us become more empathetic and compassionate, strengthening our relationships.
4. Don't do all the talking
Hearing loss can be incredibly draining for the person experiencing it, forcing them to have to use large amounts of energy to concentrate on what’s being said. This can sometimes cause a person with a hearing impairment to withdraw and leave you feeling like they’re not contributing to the conversation.
“When people experience a hearing loss they can often retreat into themselves,” explains Allsop. “It’s important to make those with hearing loss still feel that they’re involved in conversations so that they don’t become embarrassed. Make sure that your loved one feels as involved as possible.”
If you feel like you’ve been talking for a while, take a break and give your loved one a chance to contribute.
5. Understand that hearing aid stigma is real
Loss of hearing can make people feel ashamed and embarrassed, and many will avoid getting diagnosed because they don’t want to wear a hearing aid.
According to Dan Turk, a representative for next-gen hearing device makers Olive Union (opens in new tab), leading hearing health organizations project that around 80% of those with hearing loss don’t get the help they need - and the number one reason, experts say, is because of the stigma surrounding hearing aids.
“Some people think that having hearing loss or hearing aids will make people think that they’re old or stupid, “ says Allsop. “The truth is in fact, that people look older constantly asking others to repeat versus if they’re seen wearing hearing aids.”
If a loved one is holding back on seeking help because they feel self-conscious about possibly needing to wear a hearing aid, talk to them about it. Asking gentle questions such as ‘can you help me understand why you don’t want to wear a hearing aid?’ will help create a safe space where they feel comfortable opening up to you.
If they’re still reluctant after you’ve spoken, don’t be afraid to share how high-tech hearing aids have become in recent years. Today many models now fuse stylish design with modern features such as Bluetooth connection, fitness tracking and fall alerts, all built into a small and discreet device.
6. Look for hearing loss support groups
While you can be a huge source of support for your loved one, having other people to talk to who are going through the same experience can be invaluable. External support isn’t just good for hearing-impaired individuals who may be having feelings of loneliness and isolation, it can also be helpful for those supporting them.
“There is a wealth of information out there on hearing loss and support with people sharing their stories” explains Allsop. “Type in ‘hearing loss’ or ‘hearing aids’ into Facebook and look for some of the groups out there with people sharing stories and advice.”
You’ll find groups and other online information both for those experiencing hearing loss and those supporting them. While you may initially feel reluctant to reach out, these groups can be a wonderful way of helping both sides to feel less alone.
7. Suggest seeking help
Have a chat with your loved one about speaking to a healthcare professional about their hearing, or having a hearing test.
Be encouraging and supportive; ask if they’d like you to go with them, and gently and positively point out how taking action will improve their overall quality of life. You could even suggest that you both get tested together as a show of solidarity.
A hearing test doesn’t need to be scary and as Allsop points out, there are different types of hearing loss and not all of them will require ongoing treatment. “It could potentially be an earful of wax and just need a good clean!"
Kathryn is a freelance health and wellness writer. She previously worked for 10 years as an educator in the health care industry before leaving to spend her days indulging her love of writing. An avid meditator and long-distance walker with a passion for mental and emotional wellbeing, she’s happiest when she’s surrounded by mountains and oceans. When not writing words or thinking about them while walking, she can usually be found brewing a cup of herbal tea from her vast collection or trying to figure out healthy ways of incorporating chocolate and peanut butter into almost every meal.
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