Presbycussis, or age related hearing loss is very common in the over sixties. However because it is a gradual loss of hearing over many years it is difficult to notice at first. Most people with age related hearing loss are unaware of the problem until they cannot follow conversations or misunderstand what is being said to them.
The inability to understand those around them can make a vulnerable person feel as through they are losing their mind. Having to concentrate hard whenever someone is talking can cause extreme tiredness which can make a person very forgetful. Worries about memory loss create stress and make the problem worse.
Tinnitus is a common symptom of hearing loss. It is usually described as a ringing noise in the ears, but in reality it can be any tone or buzzing noise. It may sometimes increase in volume until it drowns out normal speech sound, it can also change tone and sound musical. Someone may be reluctant to talk about the strange sounds they are hearing in case people think they are going a bit mad, or, if they are already concerned about their mental health they may think it is a hallucination.
The thought of becoming ill and losing independence is something many older people fear. The thought of having dementia and being unable to care for yourself is very frightening.
Problems in the ear can also lead to balance problems, making a person more likely to fall over. Vertigo is also common and can make it feel like the floor is moving as you are sitting still or walking along. This is very scary if you don’t know what it is.
To an observer, some of the symptoms of hearing loss may seem similar to those of dementia. They may be easily confused or not seem to know what is going on. A simple question may be met with a blank look or they may say something random in the middle of a conversation.
Age related hearing loss is caused by the slow decline of the delicate hair cells in the inner ear. Because certain sound frequencies are lost before others, they may only hear half sentences or miss the beginning sounds from words. The brain can compensate for this by automatically filling in the blanks so that the sentence makes sense, but this can cause lots of confusion when the person doesn’t realise they have misheard something. After all, it sounded right to them.
Everyone has different speech patterns and voice frequencies which makes some people harder to understand if the listener has hearing loss. Tiredness can also affect a person’s ability to hear well. This inconsistency in hearing ability can make others think they are sometimes being ignored or that hearing is ‘selective’. It can also make the person believe that there is no problem with their hearing because sometimes they can hear everything. This in turn, can increase the concern about mental health problems.
A hearing check can determine if there is a hearing problem as well as looking for any signs of disease or illness in the ear. A specialist can also give advice about coping with tinnitus and vertigo. These symptoms can be made worse by stress, so having as much information as possible about how to cope and being assured that there are no other causes can help immensely. Having hearing checked regularly will allow the audiologist to tell if there is rapid deterioration and whether the hearing loss is age related or due to other causes.
Modern hearing aids are much more discrete than they used to be and can be programmed to compensate for a person’s exact hearing loss. If they have been without good hearing for a while the hearing aid may seem too loud and they will be tempted not to use it. However it is important to encourage them to wear it as much as possible so that they can get used to normal hearing volumes again. The more they use it, the easier it will be to set the controls and get the most benefit.
Arrange some follow up appointments with the audiologist so they can make any alterations needed to the hearing aid programs.
Some hearing aids also come with a remote control so that the volume or program can be changed easily and discretely. This is ideal if the buttons on the hearing aid itself are too small and fiddly.
There is plenty of specialist equipment which can help them to stay independent. A pager alert system which vibrates or flashes can tell them if their doorbell or telephone rings. It can also be linked to a smoke alarm and pillow shaker to give them, and you, peace of mind at night.
These alert systems can also be linked to doors or floor mats so they know if someone has come through the front door or gone into certain rooms. This is ideal if they are caring for their partner or have a shared entrance to their flat or apartment.
Telephones are available with extra loud ring tones and flashing lights to make sure they do not miss your calls. These are hearing aid compatible and have volume controls so that they can turn the speaker’s voice up. Being able to use the telephone again can help them stay in touch with friends and family and feel connected to everyone again.
In social situations, make sure the person is sitting where they can see everyone’s faces and that background noise is kept to a minimum. Be aware that when you are outside, or in a large room with a high ceiling, it will be harder to hear what is said.
Even when a hearing loss is diagnosed and they have a hearing aid, a person may need time to come to terms with their hearing loss. If they start to avoid social occasions or they seem withdrawn, they may be suffering from stress or depression and might need extra support.
About the Author: Paul Harrison has been in the hearing aid industry for over 15 years working at both manufacturer level and retailer level. He now operates a UK online hearing aid business www.yourhearing.co.uk which offers all the major hearing aid manufacturer hearing aids.