For people with hearing loss, the holiday season can be incredibly stressful.
Holiday parties and family gatherings can cause frustration and discomfort as you struggle to catch the joke and follow the conversation, especially when background noise interferes with your hearing aid. Even virtual family get-togethers can be difficult, due to mixed sound quality and lack of body-language signals to help communication.
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1. Do some advance work
Most hosts are happy to oblige if you talk to them ahead of time about your needs, says Shari Eberts, a hearing health advocate and founder of the blog Living With Hearing Loss. Could you be seated at a specific spot at the table? Could the kids’ table be in a separate room? Would your host mind turning down the holiday tunes or, preferably, turning them off at some point? If you’re meeting a group at a restaurant, call in advance to see if the manager can lower the volume of the background music and put your party in a quiet corner, ideally at a booth or round table.
2. Reserve a strategic spot at the table
For a sit-down dinner, arrive early to scope out the best seat — then claim it with a coat or bag. Look for a spot in the middle of the table (so you can see everyone) and away from the kitchen, says Katherine Bouton, author of Shouting Won’t Help a memoir about coping with adult-onset hearing loss. Putting your back to the wall can help filter out background noise.
3. Get a boost from technology
Even if you have a hearing aid, an assistive listening device can be extremely helpful in a loud environment, Bouton says. These devices come with earbuds or a headset and a portable microphone — just place the mic near whomever you want to hear. Another option is to convert your smartphone into an amplifier by using headphones and a hearing amplifier app like Petralex or Hear Boost, both of which are available for iOS and Android devices.
4. Make a beeline for the couch
During a gathering avoid the kitchen, food area and bar, which tend to be crowded and loud. Instead, invite someone to sit on a sofa with you to chat. “Not only will the couch provide a little acoustic baffle,” Bouton says, “but the noise will be above you and less intrusive.”
5. Take an after-dinner walk
Don’t be shy about inviting a favorite friend or relative outside to continue a conversation. “Noise levels are often much lower outside than inside with all the hard surfaces and other noisemakers,” Eberts says. “I often will take a walk with someone to enjoy some quiet conversation.” Offering to drive or planning to ride with someone to an event is another easy way to ensure you’ll have quiet one-on-one time with someone you care about.
6. Use a classic visual cue
Instead of interrupting the flow of conversation, let others know you’re having trouble hearing by holding a cupped hand behind your ear. This will send a silent signal for someone to speak up, as well as direct sound into your ear.
7. Enable captions for virtual gatherings
Both Google Meet and Zoom offer high-quality, real-time captioning, Eberts says. For Zoom, however, you need to ask the host to activate the captions in advance through the platform’s settings. “For best results, do a quick tech check with the host to make sure all is running smoothly ahead of the main event,” Eberts advises. If the auto-captions aren’t working, use a speech-to-text app, like Google's Live Transcribe feature for Android phones or Otter.ai (available on iOS and Android devices), to create your own. Also, make sure to use “speaker mode” to enlarge the image of the speaker so that you can use lipreading cues.
8. Create some structure
It’s easier to hear if people talk one at a time. For an online gathering, “try setting an agenda for the call where each person has time to share their updates with the group,” Eberts suggests. “This may seem formal at first, but it can work if everyone has the right attitude.” At an in-person event, one way to encourage taking turns is to ask everyone to share their high and low moments from the day. Or each person could share a favorite memory of the past year or goals for the next one. (If you have an assistive listening device, the microphone can be passed to each person as they speak.)
9. Don’t bluff
It’s so tempting to nod along and pretend you can hear what’s going on. But you will feel much less awkward — and your interactions will be more meaningful — if you are honest about your hearing loss, Eberts says. “It can be hard to keep it all in perspective during the holidays when you feel like you are missing out, but try to laugh a little and be grateful for the wonderful friends and family around you. You may not hear every word they say, but you can partake in all of the good feelings nonetheless.”
Editor's note: This piece, originally published in December 2017, has been updated to include information about video calls and virtual gatherings.
Michelle Crouch is a contributing writer who has covered health and personal finance for some of the nation's top consumer publications. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Prevention, The Washington Post and The New York Times.