Thirty-two percent of Americans aged 55 or more years have significant hearing loss. Yet, only 12% of people who receive a formal hearing loss diagnosis get hearing aids, and those who do often wait seven to 10 years before being fitted.

Postponing treatment might seem like a simple inconvenience, but it could have serious consequences. Studies show that even mild degrees of untreated hearing loss can increase risk of dementia, raise chances of depression and social isolation, and are associated with falls or other health complications.

But there’s good news, too. Hearing loss is the most modifiable risk factor of dementia. With proper treatment, older adults not only can hear better; they also can lower their risk of cognitive decline.

As owners and operators of senior living communities, here’s how you and your employees can spot hearing loss, get residents the help they need, and create a better hearing environment.

Know the warning signs

In most cases, behavioral changes could alert staff that a resident might be struggling with hearing. Look for:

  • Memory loss. Memory often slips as people age, but forgetfulness is heightened in those with hearing loss. When the brain strains to hear an ongoing conversation, it fatigues faster and is unable to retain all the information.
  • Social isolation. People with hearing loss may withdraw from social events and other challenging listening environments. The more isolated a person becomes, the less stimulation their brain receives, increasing their risk for depression and cognitive decline.
  • Falls. Although a person’s risk of falls naturally increases with age, older adults with untreated hearing loss may be more prone to falls.

If residents display any of these changes in behavior, or continually ask you to repeat yourself in conversation, they could be struggling with hearing loss.

Create a more hearing-friendly environment

Chances are, many of your residents have, or one day will have, hearing loss diagnosed. Here are several ways you and your staff can make it easier for people to engage and get help:

  1. Design your community with acoustics in mind. Healthy hearing depends on the right materials. For instance, hard surfaces, high ceilings and open dining rooms (now that you may be starting to use them again) can raise noise levels, making it difficult to engage in conversation. Window drapes, tablecloths, and carpet, however, can dampen ambient noise and make it easier for residents to home in on speech. Pad the bottoms of chair and table legs to eliminate the sounds of moving furniture, and install sound-absorbing acoustic tiles to control noise in common areas.

Lighting is important, too. People with hearing loss rely on visual cues and lip-reading to make up for missed sounds and speech – something that’s much more difficult to do in dimly lit rooms.

Think also about the style of the tables in your dining room. Small, round tables that place residents close together and facing each other are more conducive to conversation than banquet-style tables.

2. Train your staff to communicate effectively. Educate your employees on pacing and articulation, and familiarize them with Clear Speech, a more purposeful method of communication.

Compared with conversational speech, Clear Speech is slower, louder and more deliberate. It emphasizes intonation (putting stress on key words) and pauses between thoughts and phrases to make it easier for people with hearing loss to understand what’s being said.

It seems simple, but also make sure you have your residents’ attention before you start speaking to eliminate the need for repetition. And in this time of COVID, if you can secure personal protective equipment that enables residents to see staff members’ mouths, that could aid communication.

  1. Make professional hearing help readily available. Offering on-site access to a hearing care professional, when safe to do so, is an incredible value-add for your community, especially for residents who no longer can drive or travel easily.

When safe to do so, consider building hearing exams into a broader health screening day, in which you bring in nutritionists, optometrists, psychologists for dementia screenings, and other professionals to promote overall health and well-being.

  1. Implement modern technology. Bluetooth technology built into modern, advanced hearing aids allows for a safer, more accessible environment for people with hearing loss. By installing smart smoke detectors, doorbells and other devices that communicate directly with hearing aids, you can make sure residents don’t miss important alerts.

Equip speakers, presenters or other guests with wireless remote microphones that can directly transmit sound to hearing aids, enabling your residents to more easily hear and participate in community events in noisy environments. A loop system is another alternative that can be used to transmit audio directly to hearing aids in large group gatherings or assemblies.

Untreated hearing loss is an important, but modifiable risk factor in cognitive health. As leaders of senior living communities, you can promote healthy hearing, facilitate proper treatment of hearing loss, and help residents fight against the risk of dementia and cognitive decline.

Annette Mazevski, Au.D., Ph.D., is the manager of technology assessment at Oticon, a hearing aid manufacturer. She has more than 15 years of experience as an audiologist and researcher.