By Sabrina Lee, Au.D., CCC-A
The end of the year is full of holidays — occasions for family and friends to gather, reminisce, and share their hopes for the next 12 months. But as we get together this year, it’s important to understand that some of the people we’re celebrating with need to do a little more work in order to enjoy the company they’re keeping. This is because chances are, someone in the group experiences hearing loss.
It depends on your holiday gathering, but statistically speaking, half of grandparents and great-grandparents have significant hearing loss. So does about one in 10 of the aunts, uncles, or adult friends aged 55 to 64. Plus, we know that among adults exposed to loud noise—at work or in everyday life—about one in 5 has a hard time hearing speech. This can be a real hindrance to enjoying the holidays when all we want to do is connect with each other and share life’s joys.
If you’re hosting this season, remember that you can create a pleasant holiday environment, while also keeping a good hearing environment. Here are a few tips:
Pay attention to lighting. Good lighting makes it easier for those with hearing loss to see people clearly when they speak and recognize facial clues about what they’re saying. Candles, colored lights, and ambience are tempting around the holidays, but can hinder communication.
Remember the noise. Hearing loss often manifests itself as a struggle to perceive conversations in the presence of noise. You don’t have to eliminate background sound, but maybe keep holiday music or games on TV to a lower volume with subtitles on. Chances are, everyone will appreciate it.
Plan a quiet, festive sanctuary. Anticipating festive noise, create a warm, quiet room where those with hearing loss can gather comfortably with friends and family. It’s not always possible to reduce noise completely when everyone comes together but having at least one space where people can go to unwind from the party can help reduce listening fatigue. And if that one friend or relative wants to nap in a comfortable chair after a big meal, all the better.
Facilitate easier conversation. When it comes to holiday meals, seat those with hearing loss where they’re most likely to have the best experience. A middle seat at the table (at home or in a restaurant), for instance, can make it easier for them to hear everyone around them and participate in the conversation. If possible, seat them with their back to a wall to minimize ambient noise from behind them.
It may also help to designate someone as a ‘hearing helper’ for your family with hearing loss. If the conversation at the table jumps around and gets complex, this person can help their loved one by repeating important talking points, so no one gets left behind.
It might take some extra forethought, but try to structure conversations so people talk one at a time (maybe taking turns sharing what they’re thankful for this time of year), so that those with hearing loss can focus on what each person is saying.
Moreover, many holiday gatherings have come to include online video calls. Just remember, such virtual get-togethers can be especially hard on those with hearing loss. Check to see if the software you use can automatically generate captions.
Healthier Hearing Amid Sounds of the Holidays
If you or someone you love experiences hearing loss, be open about it during the holidays and take steps to maximize your experience. Find that perfect seat where you can best hear all your friends and family. Invite folks to join you in a quieter room to share stories and catch up. And don’t be afraid to ask people to repeat themselves if you can’t make out what they’re saying. There is no advocacy that is more effective than self-advocacy.
Most importantly, if you haven’t already, take advantage of modern hearing aid technology, which has come a long way in the last several years. Visit an audiologist, like the many in the HearUSA network, to learn how hearing aids have evolved. Because what once was just a means of amplifying sound has evolved to include intelligent systems that can process cacophonous listening environments and optimize human connection.
This is important because communicating clearly during the holidays is good for our overall well-being, and healthy hearing is a big part of that. We know that those with hearing loss tend to withdraw from social situations, a reaction that’s been shown to affect cognitive health. And the last thing anyone wants around the holidays is social isolation.
Holiday gatherings are for group conversation. For as long as we’ve understood hearing loss, group conversation has been a challenge, but as technology progresses, people with hearing loss move closer to having effortless communication, which can make the holidays an effortlessly good time.
New Hearing Aids Make Gatherings More Enjoyable
In recent years, hearing aid developers have made great strides in addressing what’s called focused hearing, which is the ability to pick up and enhance the voice of a companion (usually the one in front of you) while diminishing background noise. However, holiday gatherings usually include several companions that are in many different directions, thus the need exists to broaden hearing aids’ capabilities to account for groups.
There are many approaches to addressing this big need. For example, the hearing aid company Signia, which is a sister company to HearUSA, started by developing split processing, which enables a class of hearing aids that can divide a soundscape into two channels — a focus channel (the voice of the companion in front of you) and a background channel (all that ambient noise, like the ruckus of a restaurant or festive holiday music). Each is handled separately by dedicated processors in the hearing aids and the wearer experiences greater speech clarity despite the surrounding noise.
On a larger scale, the newest hearing aids released by Signia now include what’s called RealTime Conversation Enhancement, which analyzes a sound environment where many people are talking, senses speech — including primary and secondary speakers — and automatically separates voices into multiple distinct channels for processing. The hearing aid then latches onto these voices and attempts to keep them in focus for the listener whether those voices move in the space, or the user moves their head.
During the holidays, this could mean hearing aid wearers can better follow the ebbs and flows of conversation, even in noisy environments full of holiday cheer.
As you can tell, it may take a little extra care from loved ones and a few small lifestyle changes, but this year people with hearing loss can confidently enjoy the company of others while actively sharing their own best wishes for holidays to come. And as the year comes to a close, everyone can happily, heartily, and loudly countdown to midnight, and join in a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”
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