Communication, Hearing Loss and the Usage of Masks In Today’s World

By Elizabeth Brassine, Au.D.

The impact of hearing loss on communication has become magnified with the Coronavirus (Covid-19). Unfortunately, many of the people who have fallen victim to the virus have hearing loss, are unaccompanied by family members, have multiple chronic health conditions and are likely without hearing assistance. We think of the obvious effect of hearing loss with regard to communication difficulties. However, your hearing health contributes to your overall well-being and quality of life. Statistically, hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic condition in older Americans after hypertension and arthritis. Aging also brings cognitive processing deficits that interfere with communication and can create distractions that lead to memory loss, falls and other accidents.

We are aware that a cornerstone of patient safety and quality healthcare is effective communication, which allows patients to participate more fully in their care. For communication to be effective, it must take place in a manner appropriate to one’s age, understanding and communication abilities. Furthermore, medical information, when provided, must be complete, accurate, timely, unambiguous, and understood. When patients can hear and understand the healthcare provider, they are much more likely to be compliant and follow recommendations and have their medical needs optimally met.

The struggle to understand speech for persons with hearing loss is now exacerbated by face masks, which have become a necessity to help minimize the spread of the virus. The masks pose two problems for patients with hearing loss: the hearing impaired person cannot gain any cues from lip reading and the voice of the person talking is attenuated and distorted by the mask. In particular, masks impact the “loudness” of the higher pitched speech sounds, which are our consonants. Consonants give us the meaning to what we’re listening to. Some people have been able to obtain the clear face masks. This certainly helps reduce the issue of not being able to see the face and lip reading but can still distort the speech.

In the midst of our current environment of Covid-19 and the need for wearing masks, here are some suggestions of how to best communicate with the hearing impaired.

Face the person and talk clearly (not while walking away from the patient or while looking in cabinets, refrigerators, etc.).
Speak at a reasonable speed, often slowing down how you speak is more beneficial than raising your voice.
Do not hide your mouth (so much speech information comes from non-verbal cues and facial expressions) or talk while eating or chewing gum.
Stand in good lighting.
Reduce background noises.
Use facial expressions or gestures to give useful cues.
Repeat yourself, if necessary, using different words.
Include the hearing-impaired person when talking. Talk with the person, not about the person when you are with others. This helps keep the person with hearing loss from feeling alone and excluded.
Be patient; stay positive and relaxed.
Ask how you can help!

Also important, here are some tips of what the hearing impaired person can do to improve their communication with hearing aids:

Let people know that you have difficulty hearing.
Ask people to face you and to speak slowly and clearly. Ask them to speak without shouting, which can just distort the speech signal.
Pay attention to what is being said and to facial expressions or gestures.
Let the person talking know if you do not understand.
Ask people to reword a sentence and try again.
Turn off any unnecessary, extraneous noises (such as radio while in car, TV at home, etc.).
Wear your hearing aids consistently!

Elizabeth Brassine, Au.D., is the owner of Hearing Services of McKinney.