Approximately 37.5 million U.S. adults report some trouble hearing, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, and the effects aren’t just physical: Hearing loss can leave you feeling isolated, even in a roomful of family and friends.
In one Dutch study, each decibel of hearing loss was linked to a 7 percent increase in loneliness among adults under age 70. But loneliness isn’t inevitable. Hearing aids and other devices, as well as smart strategies, can help you communicate and feel more connected at social events, loud restaurants or when meeting someone new.
“It takes more work, but the work is worth it,” says hearing advocate Shari Eberts, founder of the blog Living With Hearing Loss. “This is the one life you have.”
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Here, Eberts and other experts share advice for navigating common social settings when you have hearing loss.
Call the host ahead of time. “If you’ll be a guest somewhere, reach out in advance to the host,” Eberts says. “Maybe there’s a portion of the party where the music can be turned down or off. And request to be seated at the center of the table so you have the opportunity to see as many people as possible and be more a part of group conversations.”
A central seat puts you closer to more people, so hearing is a bit easier. You can also see more faces up close, which makes using visual cues like lipreading and facial expressions simpler, too, she says.
Find some quiet for more intimate conversations. Invite someone you’d like to talk with one-on-one to sit in a less noisy room, or go for a walk or a bit of fresh air, Eberts suggests.
Take breaks. “There’s something called listening fatigue,” she explains. “It takes so much concentration to home in on the voices, the faces, the speechreading. I will escape the din of the party at some point and go to the restroom or into another room just to give my brain a rest.”
Weddings, parties, noisy bars and restaurants
Choose your seat wisely. “Many people have the perception that if I’m wearing hearing aids, they will magically separate speech from background noise,” says audiologist Sarah Sydlowski, president of the American Academy of Audiology and audiology director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Hearing Implant program. “But [sound quality] is only as good as what reaches your ears.”
Even newer, more advanced hearing-aid models can’t completely filter out background noise. Sydlowski recommends facing the wall, with your back toward the sound. And, of course, try to choose a table far from the DJ, speakers or other sources of background noise.
Tips for phone calls
Use a captioning app for smartphone calls. Phone calls present their own challenges if you have hearing loss, Sydlowski says, since there are no visual cues and sound quality can vary. Several apps use speech-recognition software or, in one case, live stenographers, to turn your conversation into captions that you can read in real time on your phone. Among them are TextHear as well as free apps the Federal Communications Commission has certified for people who are hard of hearing or deaf, including CaptionCall, ClearCaptions, InnoCaption, CaptionMate and Hamilton CapTel.
Use an amplified or captioned landline. Amplified landlines are louder than their traditional counterparts; you can also add a headset to a traditional landline that lets you hear a call with both ears (smartphone-compatible headsets are another option to up the volume on mobile calls). Many of the same companies that offer free captioning apps for smartphones offer free landlines with caption screens for people with hearing loss, which Sydlowski says can be more helpful than amplified phones for those with severe hearing loss (louder call volume doesn't always mean better clarity). Find out more, including whether you qualify for this government-funded program, at the Hearing Loss Association of America website.
Another tip: Ask for a round table, which puts you closer to more people, says Christine Morgan, president of the Twin Cities chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America.
Bring your own assistive listening device. Assistive listening devices, or ALDs, work with your hearing aids or have earbuds or headphones for people who don’t use hearing aids. A small, portable, wireless microphone amplifies conversations while reducing background noise, Sydlowski explains. You can pass the microphone around to talk with different people, and the signal can transmit from up to 80 feet away from your ears. “You can use one at a noisy wedding, in a restaurant, when you go to the pharmacy — just set it on the counter,” she says.
Or use your smartphone as an amplifier. Speech-boosting apps can turn your smartphone into a remote microphone, sending sound to earbuds or to hearing aids that can be paired with your phone. Examples include the iOS app Live Listen and the Android apps Headset Remote and Sound Amplifier. Another app, called Chatable, is available for both iOS and Android devices. “Turn on the app, and hand your phone to the person you want to talk with,” Sydlowski says. “You’ll hear them much more clearly.”
Visit restaurants during quieter, off-peak hours. “If we go out to eat, we usually don’t go between 11:30 and 1:30 for lunch. We’ll go at 2 p.m., so places are less crowded,” Morgan says.
Meeting someone new
Have a script. Ebert recommends creating a brief explanation of your hearing loss that you can use when you meet people. As you repeat it more often you’ll grow more comfortable disclosing your condition and asking for what you need in order to hear better. “Being up front is almost always the right decision,” she says. “If you’re feeling embarrassed, practice on strangers you probably won’t see again, like your seatmate on the bus or someone at a store.”
Ask for what you need. Don’t be shy about requesting that people face you when they speak, slow down or speak a little louder, Ebert says. It's also helpful, she says, to ask whomever you’re speaking with not to talk while eating, to avoid shouting and to keep their hands away from their mouth — all of which interfere with lipreading and interpreting facial expressions.
Use technology, or pencil and paper, for better understanding. Face masks and other coronavirus-related precautions, such as plastic barriers, can make hearing and understanding more challenging during errands like a stop at the bank or grocery store. Using a speech-to-text captioning app on your smartphone can help (options include Live Caption, eyeHear and TextHear for iOS devices; Speechnotes for Android devices; and Ava for iOS and Android). Just turn on the app and point your phone’s microphone at the speaker. A no-tech alternative: Write down important info or ask the other person to do so, Ebert says.
Sari Harrar is a contributing editor to AARP publications who specializes in health and science.