The hearing loss epidemic may be louder than we think, especially when physical distancing regulations ask people to stay further apart.
Hearing loss is more than just being able to understand and process sounds. It is critical to communicating and connecting to the world. Today, hearing loss affects almost 60% of assisted living and memory care residents and is only projected to increase, given that the population is projected to reach 100 million people aged 65 and older by 2060.1,2 Although hearing aids are a well-known option, only 12% of those with hearing impairment actually will use one.
For senior living communities allowing in-person visitation, often physical barriers or extended distances can dilute sound, making it difficult for residents to hear loved ones. With the necessity of masks, facial cues can be obstructed, which can lead to confusion for residents whose hearing is impaired, if they typically rely on facial expressions to discern what is being said.
Although the prevalence of hearing loss among aging populations may not be surprising, the negative consequences of leaving hearing impairment untreated are staggering. Here are just a few:
- Increased risk of dementia, loneliness and social isolation, and depression.
- Increased cost per resident due to the management cross-morbidity health conditions.
- Decreased return on investments in your community.
Study after study link hearing impairment to a multitude of health conditions, including increased cognitive decline, feelings of loneliness and social isolation, as well as increased risk for coronary conditions and diabetes.3,4 This means that this common condition may be accelerating unhealthy aging and contributing to the progression of other chronic illnesses — and costing facilities more money.
A longitudinal study funded by the National Institute on Aging found that social isolation contributes to increased healthcare costs and spending per long-term care resident, with an average increase of $75 per person per month compared with their engaged counterparts. This adds up quickly – annually, these costs equal an estimated $6.7 billion in additional spending.5
Lastly, residents who are unable to overcome sensory impairment are less likely to attend or understand community programming, leading to decreased rates of resident engagement and mood. As residents opt-out of amenities or cannot perceive value in them due to hearing limitations, investments go underused, leaving residents and families less satisfied.
Although hearing loss may feel like an insurmountable problem, communities can do plenty of things to break down hearing loss barriers. Here a few things that can be done:
- Train staff on best communication practices. In times such as now, when masks are required, consider speaking louder than normal, and make eye contact. Do not yell, however.
- Invest in environmental modifications, including acoustic materials that absorb sound such as carpet, and choose locations that will not have a lot of background noise when conversing with hearing-impaired residents.
- Encourage residents and their families to consider assistive listening devices where group listening options are not available or practicable.
With many viable and affordable options available to both older adults and to senior living communities, correcting hearing impairment and keeping residents connected are first lines of defense against social isolation.
1Lin FR, Niparko JK, Ferrucci L. Hearing Loss Prevalence in the United States. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(20):1851–1853. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.506: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3564588/
2 Population Reference Bureau. (2016). Retrieved from: https://www.prb.org/aging-unitedstates-fact-sheet/.
3 Maharani, A., Dawes, P., Nazroo, J., Tampubolon, G., & Pendleton, N. (2018). Longitudinal relationship between hearing aid use and cognitive function in older Americans. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 66(6), 1130-1136: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29637544
4Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227-237.: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25910392
5Flowers, L., Houser, A., Noel-Miller, C., Shaw, J., Bhattacharya, J., Schoemaker, L., & Farid, M. (2017). Medicare spends more on socially isolated older adults. Insight on the Issues, 125: https://www.aarp.org/ppi/info-2017/medicare-spends-more-on-socially-isolated-older-adults.html