COVID-19: Communicating with Seniors With Hearing Loss

Early in the global COVID-19 pandemic, Johns Hopkins University noticed that many seniors with hearing loss, including those who were receiving at-home care, were having increased difficulty communicating. Due to masking requirements and physical distancing; medical professionals, in-home care aides and family members were having difficulty communicating with elderly relatives with hearing loss. Wearing a mask makes it impossible to read lips. And maintaining six feet of distance makes reading sign language more difficult.

In a Letter to the Editor of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Dr. Nicholas Reed of Johns Hopkins outlines the problem as it pertains to a hospital setting. Many of the same concerns exist in at-home care. In addition to the issues of masks and distancing; noisy environments make it difficult for seniors with partial loss to understand speech. Using videoconference technology such as Zoom or Skype can help overcome masking and distancing issues. But slow internet connections can be a further barrier to communication, as sound may not match up with the visual.

Addressing Hearing Loss Issues in Seniors Receiving Home Care during COVID-19

There are a few recommended tools that can help facilitate effective communication with seniors who have hearing loss, including:

  • Use a clear mask:  Clear masks, or masks with a clear window, allow the senior with hearing loss to see the mouth of the speaker, which can assist with lip reading.
  • Use teleconferencing, such as Zoom or Skype. When using these technologies. However, keep in mind the best practices for those with some hearing loss.
  • Keep background noise to a minimum to limit distraction.
  • Make sure there is enough lighting where you are to aide in lip reading or sign language comprehension.
  • Maintain a stable internet connection. And try not to move the device around too much. Avoid moving from room to room or communicating while walking whenever possible.
  • Speech to text apps. While accuracy can be a problem, using a phone’s speech-to-text function or dedicated apps like SpeechTexter or IBM’s Watson can be useful. It is important to make sure that the person with hearing loss understands that; the text may be imprecise and that you may need to correct some speech in order to convey your message.
  • A low-tech solution for understanding is to have printed placards. Containing common phrases that you might use regularly. Use simple fonts, and make sure to make the font large enough to be read from a reasonable distance.  Even larger than most people would consider making it. Those with vision problems tend to do better with sans serif fonts like Helvetica and Calibri, and use at least a 24 point size.
  • When none of these solutions will work; use a white board to write out communications. Be sure to write in large enough print.

Home Care Mitigation Strategies for Communicating with Seniors with Hearing Loss

When providing in-home care for someone with hearing loss, there are some general best practices to follow. Experts suggest that providers follow these best practices whenever possible, though they may need to be altered for COVID-19 protocols.

  • Most importantly, make sure that both the person with hearing loss and the caregiver are focused on the communication. Multitasking while communicating can lead to distractions, and vital information can be missed.
  • Talking face-to-face (as opposed to facing them in profile) where the person with hearing loss can visualize the mouth of the person speaking will allow them to concentrate on the communication and aid in lip-reading.
  • Emphasize the speed of your speech rather than the volume. Experts call it “low and slow…” meaning lower volume and slower pace to enhance understanding, and don’t shout, as it can actually decrease how well the person speaking is understood while adding unnecessary angry or negative connotations to what is being said.
  • Giving context to the conversation will increase understanding. For example, if the person with hearing loss knows that they are having a conversation about taking medications regularly, they will more readily understand specific words that may otherwise be mis-heard.
  •  If the person with hearing loss is having difficulty understanding, it’s better to rephrase rather than repeat. Simply saying the same thing again is likely to lead to more confusion and frustration, as it’s difficult to tell which words are causing the misunderstanding. Better to say the same thing in a different way in order to increase comprehension.

Following these best practices can significantly decrease the risk of miscommunication.

COVID-19 and Hearing Loss for Seniors in Home Care

It appears likely that some kind of hearing loss is a possible complication of COVID-19 as it has been reported in as many as one in ten COVID-19 patients. Any change in hearing should be reported to medical professionals, as sudden hearing loss tends to respond well to certain treatments. Experts suggest that this hearing loss is not surprising, as sensorineural hearing loss (meaning hearing loss that is caused by issues with either the structures in the ear that sense sound, or the nerves that transmit the sound)  is frequently believed to be caused by viral infections. This complication tends to arrive later in the disease progression, sometimes occurring after recovery, so more study is needed to understand how and why this happens.

Home Care Powered by AUAF Provides Home Care Assistance to Those with Hearing Loss

Our dedicated home care aides can assist in providing home care services to elderly loved ones who need help living at home. E-mail us at [email protected], or contact us to find out more about how those with hearing loss can receive our high quality home care services.

NOTE: The products listed in this post have not been independently tested by Home Care Powered by AUAF for safety or effectiveness. Home Care Powered by AUAF does not receive any commission or consideration from the purchase of any of these products.

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