Who is Hard of Hearing? In her later years, my white-haired elderly mother had to go to the Emergency Room. She was in a bed in the partitioned room, and I was seated as we waited. Understand, if you will, she has acute hearing. Finally, the young doctor came whirling in and took a look at her, no doubt making an initial cursory evaluation based on her white hair. He started asking questions in a loud voice. I saw my mother’s face scrunch up, but the doctor was oblivious to the cues she was giving him. I saw it, but I decided not to say anything as I knew my mother would take care of it. I thought that it would be a good lesson for him to learn in his practice. And it finally came after a particularly loud question close to her head: “I may be old, but that doesn’t mean I’m deaf!” He got the message.
So who is hard of hearing? Me? No, not I, you say! I don’t think so, anyway. Let’s look at ten questions to discover if you or someone close to you may indeed be Hard of Hearing (hereafter, HOH). However, before we do look at those questions, let us understand that sound consists of many frequencies with ranges from high pitch to low rumbles with everything in between. People who are HOH are often deaf to certain frequencies, so a rumbly spouse’s voice may be totally not heard, but a higher-pitch female’s voice could be heard fairly clearly, for example. Now on to the questions:
- Do people seem to mumble or speak in a softer voice than they used to? It is often difficult for the HOH to understand a Southerner where we are in North Carolina because their speech is either soft on consonants or consonants in a word are dropped all together. Some people, like our older daughter, think faster than anyone, so their speech comes out like a machine gun: rat-a-tat-tat. Some people think talking louder will be the solution, but what is more important is enunciation – that is, how you speak clearly with your words.
- Do you feel tired or irritable after a long conversation? Listening is hard work for the HOH; it isn’t relaxing. The HOH needs to be alert during a conversation, straining to understand words. This leads to fatigue and possible isolation: having a conversation just becomes too tiring and too frustrating to bother with.
- Do you sometimes miss key words in a sentence or frequently need to ask people to repeat themselves? Voices tend to drop at the ends of sentences. Do you recall my wife’s encounters with jokes I shared in Part 1? She knows lots of jokes – but not the punch lines due to the speaker’s tendency to drop their voice at the punch line. The HOH often has to gauge how often they can ask someone to repeat something without them dismissively saying, “Never mind.” The implication for the HOH is that they are not important enough for the speaker to communicate with. “The HOH person must be stupid” is the covert implication when further communication is cut off. Another problem is when a HOH person is teaching a class. They miss the side comments in class that everyone laughs at – and the teacher would to, if she knew what was said.
- When you are in a group or in a crowded restaurant, is it difficult for you to follow the conversation? A hearing aid doesn’t mean the HOH can hear persons better in a restaurant; it just means that all the sound in the entire restaurant is amplified right into the HOH’s ears without selection. On top of that, the person sitting next to the HOH is only heard in that setting when the person is looking directly at the HOH person. The HOH then misses any comments made across the table. The speaker may be loud enough, but the background noise jumbles up the words of the speaker. A similar issue arises when in a meeting or a class. The HOH can’t understand the comments being made – especially if more than one person is talking at the same time – and wonders if what they wanted to say on the subject is applicable to what people are discussing and commenting on. Also, if everyone is laughing, then the HOH laughs, not wanting to stand out or look like they don’t get it.
- When you are together with other people, does background noise bother you? This is similar to the question about the group or the crowded restaurant. My wife (who is HOH) and I moved a little over a year ago. We visited many churches. Many of them were cavernous with a wide-open sanctuary, hard walls and loud sound systems. However, they didn’t do anything about dampening the echoes and noise feedback from the walls, ceiling and floors (if hard floors). They were loud enough, but the HOH couldn’t understand the words. What is the point of listening to a sermon if you can only understand a few words? A Fellowship Hall in a church is the absolute worst room in the church with its echo from the hard floors, hard walls, hard ceiling, nothing on the walls. However, a church we were in over four years ago had a large parlor with carpeting, soft chairs and pictures on the walls. My wife was able to teach two different crochet classes each week in the Parlor, and everyone was able to understand one another.
- Do you often need to turn up the volume on your TV or radio? Do you and your family member fight over the volume control? Has your spouse moved to another room to watch TV? My wife used to say that when she was in the car by herself, she would turn down the radio before turning off the car to avoid blasting me out of the car. Now she doesn’t listen to the radio as it’s just so much noise.
- Do you find it difficult to hear the doorbell or the telephone ring? If you are a person with hearing difficulties, the answer is frighteningly, “Yes.” There are special doorbells and telephone ringers for those with hearing difficulties what include a flashing light. There are also smoke alarms for the hearing impaired that include piercing bright lights.
- Is it difficult to carry on a telephone conversation? If you have some hearing impairment, then the answer is likely, “Yes.” Looking at question number 1 about people mumbling or speaking in a soft voice, then multiply it by a factor of 10. The voice on the phone is too distant, too fast, too soft. There may be an issue with people’s accents, spoken numbers on the phone or any kind of background noise in the house. If this is an issue and you have been diagnosed with a hearing impairment, you may qualify for a Captioning Phone. This type of phone does require a landline, though. The Captioning Phone is free with a diagnosis and the cost of a landline is minimal – about $10/month.
- Do you find it challenging to pinpoint the location of an object from the noise it makes – or to figure out what is making a noise in the house? For myself, I hear everything without filters. When I drive, I am constantly hearing the noises around me in the car: the sound of the tires on the roadway, the sound of the engine, the air making a slight noise from the driver’s window from a seal that is not quite sealing. I may ask my wife about a noise. Her reply is, “What noise? There is noise everywhere.”
- Has someone close to you mentioned that you might have a problem with your hearing? We always think it’s someone else who has a hearing problem, don’t we? Going back to the first point again, is everyone mumbling or talking softer? As my wife says, “You can put limburger cheese under your nose and say the whole world stinks. Maybe it is just you.”
Suggestions for Your Sound-Space
> If it is a church or a commercial building of some sort, you could contract with a person who is trained in Recording Arts as the son of my Norwegian cousins is studying for or a sound engineer. The person will be able to electronically analyze an open space and make suggestions for improving the sound quality of the room.
> Use modifications to soften or angle the hard surfaces, such as soft furnishings, hangings (banners, quilts, flags, etc.), carpeting.
> The sound system is very important, including the quality of the speakers, their placement in the room along with the use of appropriate microphones that are close to the speaker’s mouth.
> Seating arrangements also matter. In a class, chairs against the wall in a large room is good but may be too distant for the hearing impaired. Group the chairs in such a way that the participants are not far from the speaker and each other, perhaps by making the circle smaller.
Tips for Family, Friends, Group Leaders and Speakers
- Make sure you have the other person’s attention before speaking, perhaps by saying their name, waving your hand or tapping them on the shoulder.
- Remove obstacles that hinder clear speaking or visual cues. This includes not eating or chewing gum while speaking to someone who is HOH. Is your hand, a paper, a book – or even a microphone – in the way of your mouth? HOH people rely on visual cues to understand speech. Beards are problematic as they also block visual cues and tend to break up sounds – but you may keep yours. Just be aware of the issue.
- If you’re writing something on a board, don’t talk facing the board while writing down your point. Always speak facing the audience.
- If someone does not understand you: repeat, reword or rephrase.
- In a group or crowded area, listen as though you were HOH. Convey to them the topic being discussed, for instance, to help them discern possible words they are hearing.
- Try to socialize in groups of two to three. If it’s a larger group and I know the people, I try to find us seating for two in which I am on her left – on her bad side with the cochlear implant – and someone with a clear female voice is on her right. We had to quit going to Sunday School class get-togethers as they met in a very noisy restaurant (but in a private room) with 50 people talking at once. It was just too difficult and exhausting for my wife.
- Remember: the spouse or partner is experiencing this also – the isolation, the difficulty in communicating with someone close to you, the preferences for volume and so on.
In conclusion, remember to use love, patience and understanding with the person who is Hard of Hearing. They need it as their physical stressors or handicap is not as evident as someone with a wheelchair, crutches, a seeing-eye dog, a missing limb. However, their struggle is still quite real. Above all, if someone suspects they may be Hard of Hearing or may have hearing loss, try to get into an audiologist to be evaluated.