Know when to speak up

A family member's hearing loss can be a touchy topic

A family member's hearing loss can be a touchy topic

June 06, 2003|by Chris Copley

Albert Gatz is an active man with work-toughened hands.

After more than 50 years in the construction industry, Gatz's hands remain busy. In the past few years, he has served as contractor for half a dozen homes in Washington County and in the Richmond, Va., area. He has also mentored teenagers who joined his work crews.

But talking with his work crews, his sons and their families is occasionally frustrating. Gatz's hearing has deteriorated over the past decade.

"I hear sounds, but I don't understand the words," he says. "I still have trouble understanding the tots."

"The tots" are his great-grandchildren, says daughter-in-law Kathy Gatz, a nurse social service director at Williamsport Retirement Village. Even with a hearing aid - two hearing aids, when both are working - Albert Gatz hears low-pitched sounds better than high-pitched sounds, such as his great-granddaughters' voices.


Gatz simply can't hear as well as he used to. During family board games, when more than one person speaks at a time, he can lose the thread of conversation.

"Frustration would be a word to use," says Kathy Gatz. "You're talking to him, but he's not understanding."

Albert Gatz's situation is common. According to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, one in three people older than 60 and half of those older than 85 have hearing loss.

Frustation, stress and fear can make the problem difficult for families to talk about.

Some deny the loss

Gatz acknowledges his hearing loss, and he and his family incorporate his condition into daily life. The situation is worse for those who deny they are losing their hearing, according to Nancy Seidman, public relations coordinator for the Maryland Relay, a phone-based text-messaging service for deaf and hard-of-hearing residents.

"I've gone to senior expos and an old couple will come up to me," says Seidman. "The man is wearing two hearing aids, but he says he hears fine. I ask him if he knows anyone who is losing their hearing. He says 'no,' but his wife is pointing at him behind his back."

The tragedy of hearing loss is cultural more than sensory. The problem is not simply loss of hearing; there is a lively community of deaf people who communicate via American Sign Language and say they do not miss hearing at all. The deaf community has a unique culture which utilizes its language.

The problem occurs when hearing becomes impaired later in life. A person becomes distant from his culture. Conversing with friends and family is frustrating. Speaking in group settings is embarrassing. Talking on the phone is difficult or impossible.

Not only is it harder to hear conversation, but the background tapestry of ordinary sounds fades.

"The world gets to be really silent," says Solveig Ingersoll, an audiologist in Hagerstown. "In group settings, you miss a comment or don't laugh at a joke. It looks like you're losing it, mentally, which is not the case."

Silence leads to isolation

Seidman says the frustration leads to personality changes for many people with hearing loss.

"They become a little bit resentful," she says. "People don't invite them out. Or they retreat into themselves because they don't want to say, 'huh?' or 'what?' They get embittered."

Approaching the subject of hearing loss can be touchy.

"We suggest people say something like, 'I've noticed sometimes there are things I say that you're not hearing. I know you think you do, but I was yelling something and you didn't respond to me,'" Seidman says. "If there's a husband-wife relationship and they're defensive, it can be difficult. The person (with hearing loss) may say, 'It's not that I can't hear, it's that you're not speaking loud enough.'"

Technology can help

There are two kinds of hearing loss, according to Ingersoll: conductive hearing loss and sensorineural hearing loss.

"With conductive hearing loss, there is some impediment to dampen sound waves passing through the mechanical parts of the ear," she says. "These kinds of hearing loss are typically in the outer or middle ear and are accessible and treatable."

Conductive hearing loss is often noticeable, often painful and usually reversible.

But when sensorineural hearing loss - problems with the inner ear - occurs, hearing loss is gradual, progressive and permanent. The most common way to hear again is to turn up the volume with a hearing aid.

"Most people benefit from amplification," Ingersoll says. "It's the treatment of choice for nerve deafness."

Today's amplification devices are pretty high-tech. Ingersoll says advances in technology have led to digital hearing aids able to lower the volume on some frequencies and increase the volume on other frequencies. It's not one-size-fits-all.

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