5 Tips to Help Seniors Enjoy and Engage in Family Gatherings

By Mark Conradt, Au.D of Audiology and Hearing Aid Center of Ear, Nose, and Throat Specialists of Wisconsin

People who experience hearing loss have different ways of dealing with this distressing change. Some expect their spouse to repeat everything for them, while others try lip reading or opt to get tested and fitted for hearing aids. Hearing loss also can be a threat to your long-term mental health, as shown by research that found hearing loss in middle age may be a precursor to dementia. As we disengage from healthy family and social interactions, we also increase our “mental load” spent on deciphering language and neglect other parts of our healthy brain function.

First, a short lesson on age-related hearing loss: Our ears and brain work together to help “bring out” the sounds we want to hear by using pattern recognition. When the delicate cells in the ear that receive sound deteriorate because of aging, genetics, or noise exposure, the brain doesn’t have as many sound clues to solve the puzzle of what is being transmitted. Add distracting background sounds from a full household—or a mind that does not follow things quite as quickly as it used to—and it becomes impossible to understand what is being said.

Hearing loss affects the majority of Americans as we age. According to the National Institute on Aging, 18 percent of American adults 45-64 years old already have hearing loss, and by the time we are 75, nearly 47 percent us will have a hearing impairment. Hearing loss especially affects a person’s ability to interact socially. Older people with hearing loss might:

  • Turn down invitations to family gatherings or events or withdraw from conversations once they arrive
  • Experience isolation and depression as a result of their hearing limitations
  • Feel guilty or ridiculed because of the extra help and effort they require to participate in conversations

My job as a doctor of audiology is to help people restore their hearing—and with it, their self-esteem, ability to enjoy life, and their hopes for a healthy future. I work with individuals and families to choose the best tools, like hearing aids, to help restore hearing. Also consider these tips when in the midst of a large family gathering:

  • Try to converse with one person at a time. Conversations with multiple people can be hard to follow, especially if a person in relying on lip reading to some extent.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask people to swap seats. This is especially true if a grandchild is telling a story to a grandparent. A soft-spoken young person should switch to the spot right next to grandma or grandpa so they can see and hear one another.
  • Be aware of listening fatigue. It takes a lot of effort to focus, decode, and respond to conversation when the primary sense (hearing) is not 100 percent. The person with hearing loss will benefit from a break from conversation, which might mean a short nap, walking the dog, or even a bathroom break.
  • Be sure your older person is paying attention to you before you start speaking. This will cut down on the need to play catch-up and repeat the first things you said.
  • If dining out, pick a restaurant—or a time at a restaurant—that is less busy or noisy. The lunch or dinner rush may be a very inhospitable environment for a person who has hearing loss to try and hold a conversation or hear the waiter.

Everyone deserves the chance to enjoy the company of others, especially as we age and want to experience the joy of our grown kids and grandkids. Hearing is a very big part of our ability to stay involved and engaged with the people we love. If you or someone you love is showing signs of hearing loss, make an appointment with a qualified audiologist. You will also learn about how to properly clean your ears, what to expect during a hearing test, and how to choose properly fitting hearing aids.