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At a Loss

By Dr. Jennifer Sowards


The year-end holidays are fast-approaching, and it can be a festive time, with many people busy meal planning and shopping for the perfect gift.

However, for people with hearing loss, it may also be a stressful time, filled with gatherings where it will be difficult to understand conversations with family and friends. Hearing loss is tricky because it’s not an all-or-nothing thing: most people report they can hear, but it’s the clarity that becomes a problem. This is why many people still have untreated hearing loss. Most people don’t notice their own hearing loss because, to them, it sounds like other people are mumbling.

One of the first signs of hearing loss is difficulty understanding speech when there is background noise present — and this is what happens at holiday gatherings.

Even with hearing aids, navigating group settings can be a challenge. Here are some tips for the upcoming gatherings:

• Try to pick a spot that will be less noisy (away from fans or music).

• Try to position yourself as close as possible to the people you are trying to hear.

• Try not to be embarrassed to tell people you are having difficulty, and ask them to speak less rapidly or to move to a quieter spot with you.

• Pay attention to context clues to help you predict what comes next. For example, if you hear the word ‘weather,’ the next topic will likely pertain to cold, snow, rain, warm, etc.

• Don’t nod your head and smile if you didn’t understand what was said; ask the speaker to repeat to avoid embarrassing exchanges.

• If someone tells you a phone number or spells a name for you, repeat back what they said to make sure you heard it correctly.

• If you misunderstood part of a sentence, ask a specific question about the part you missed, rather than saying “what?” (For example, “where did you hide the gifts?” or “who is Ted bringing to dinner?”)

• Try to keep a positive attitude. There are some situations where it is hard to hear even for people with normal hearing.

Communication partners can also support their friends and family with hearing loss during the holidays:

• Enunciate words and face the person you are speaking with.

• Make sure you have the person’s attention if you want to tell them something important.

• Help manage background noise. Lower the volume or turn off background music or television, put down rugs in areas with hard floors (echoes in a room can exacerbate the noise), and make sure the room is well-lit to allow for clear visual cues.

• It’s OK to be frustrated, but try not to take it out on the person with hearing loss. Gentle reminders about their dependence on you might actually be helpful motivation to address any untreated hearing issues.

• Hearing aids aren’t hearing cures; even those with treated loss or normal hearing can still struggle at noisy events.

At Florence Hearing Health Care, our recommendation is for anyone noticing any hearing difficulties to have a comprehensive hearing evaluation with an audiologist to establish a baseline. The first thing we do is check to make sure there is no wax blocking the ears. We also make sure there are no infections or eardrum problems that could be treated by a physician. From this evaluation, the audiologist will be able to tell you exactly what your hearing ability is and if treatment is recommended.

Sometimes, holiday gatherings provide the inspiration for this first step in diagnosing and treating hearing loss.


Jennifer Sowards, Au.D. is an audiologist and founder of Florence Hearing Health Care.