The holidays should be a time for connecting with loved ones. There are many sounds associated with the holidays, some beloved and some a little hectic. This time can be a struggle for those with hearing loss.
The atmosphere of a household gathering can include: friends and relatives, television shows, music on the radio, and kitchen sounds. There is a lot of auditory stimulation happening in one spot. Speech becomes harder to process, no matter what age you are or what degree of hearing loss you have.
Spatial processing is the ability to pay attention to one sound from one direction while suppressing (“tuning out”) another sound from another direction. This type of multitasking is demanding to the auditory system. Spatial processing comes into play when engaged in a conversation with multiple people, or simply when in a room with background noise.
As reported by Purdue University, the neurons of the inner ear have to work harder when surrounded by a noisy environment. What the person hears can be skewed or confusing since their neurons are distracted by other information.
All of the invisible work can become tiring for the listener. Having a hearing impairment only amplifies this stress. In some cases this can lead to socially withdrawing or social isolation.
Listeners may feel it is easier to just avoid gatherings or lively places than to try and attend to all the sounds. Even for those wearing hearing aids, it may be hard to “catch” all of the voices and pitches.
A crowded room can have high pitch sounds from children, feminine voices, and electronics. Low pitch sounds can come from masculine voices, heaters or air conditioners, and fans. Other sounds that can be thrown into the mix are running water, beeping toys, kitchen timers, and dogs barking.
Fortunately, there are strategies that can ease the burden of hearing on the holidays. Virginia Ear Nose & Throat recommends:
- Sit or stand closer to the person speaking
- Face the person you are talking to
- Wear your eyeglasses if you have them
- Only speak to people in the same room (avoid the shouting-from-across-the-house technique families are sometimes prone to!)
- Limit the sources of noise, like turning off electronics or sitting away from HVAC units
The CDC further explains some strategies to overcome background noise:
- Look directly at the speaker. This helps to catch visual cues, lip reading, facial expression, and body language.
- Find the best spot in the room. Place yourself between the speaker and the background noise, instead of next to both. Sit across from the host or the person you have the most trouble hearing.
- Use closed captioning when watching movies, TV, and online videos.
If you are out in public and facing the same hearing trouble, there are also ways to advocate for yourself. It helps to let others know what your needs are in order to avoid uncomfortable situations.
- Try to dine at less popular times
- Be honest if the room is too unrealistic for you to hear in
- Ask people to speak slowly and clearly instead of louder
- Give specific requests instead of asking for just a repeat. Ask the speaker if they could look at you, stop moving, or remove the straw/utensil from their mouth first.
- Don’t fake understanding by just smiling and nodding. This creates more of a divide between you and the environment.
The layout of a room can impact hearing, as well. Some people may find it harder to hear in carpeted areas with large drapes or curtains. This is because the sounds are “absorbed” by the extra material and won’t travel through the room as easily. In contrast, some people may find it easier to hear in these plush rooms since there is less of an echo. In a room with more solid surfaces or sparse furniture, sounds may travel easier. You should pay attention to how the layout affects your hearing and see what you prefer. Some restaurants and offices purposely have acoustic tiles on the wall to reduce noise and echoes.
Despite the great advancements hearing aids have made for patients, some people may still have a hard time hearing in noisy environments. This has been a consistent finding over the past several decades.
A new technology is trying to close that gap for the hearing impaired. Augmented Focus technology performs better processing of background noise and speech in hearing aids. Two independent processors can handle the “focus” sounds like speech and the “surrounding” sounds like music or laughter. The difference of those two sources is increased, in a way, and the “surrounding” sounds are perceived as being further away.
The Augmented Focus system was shown to bring 25% better speech understanding around noise, compared to standard hearing aids. Another 95% of users found exceptional speech understanding within their home environment.
Socializing takes place in real-world situations, meaning there will be other natural sounds occurring. These background sounds can be important for recreation, safety, or situational awareness. Talking at a children’s soccer game, on a park bench, or near a street will all have their own background noises.
If you don’t want to lose the background sounds and still want to hear your conversation partner, new hearing aid technology may help. The above tips for socializing in noisy environments can come in handy, as well. There is hope to overcome hearing loss during this holiday season and in the future.