Etiquette 101: When a Loved One Has Hearing Loss

Janet Siroto
April 24, 2018

My great uncle was a lovely man — a lawyer who was known for sticking up for the underdog, even when it was at his own expense. He also had severe hearing loss in his old age, and his grandson, my cousin Josh, would walk down Broadway with him, trying to have a simple conversation with this intelligent, engaging man. But in order to be heard, Josh had to raise his voice to levels that raised eyebrows even in crowded, noisy NYC. I knew their conversations were loving chats, but to the rest of the world, it looked like Josh was berating this poor old man, hollering at him about amusing cat memes.

It’s such a common scenario that practically everyone I know could tell an identical story – with much the same ending: “But whenever we suggested he get his ears checked, he scoffed and shook his head.”

This doesn’t surprise Dr. Sam Trychin, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in treating people with “communication disorders,” which is what he considers hearing loss to be. “There is a national stigma around hearing loss,” he says. “People who are hard of hearing are considered infirm and generally a pain in the butt to talk to.” Think of all the times the simple act of not being able to hear makes a character in a sitcom look difficult or even ridiculous. And so we often internalize these messages ourselves: “I can’t have hearing loss. That’s for Oldy Oldpants.”

There are other reasons people go into denial about their hearing loss, of course. But short of conquering everyone else’s assumptions and biases (I mean, go for it, if that’s your bliss), how can you encourage someone – a family member, a spouse, even a child – to take action and get their hearing checked?

Approach it as a relationship issue

Hearing loss is one area where there’s a clear gender gap: Women are much more likely to take action and have hearing loss treated; men are more likely to be reluctant. There are a billion possible reasons for this, including the cultural expectations that men adhere to the strong-and-silent stereotype.

But at its core, hearing loss doesn’t just impact the person who’s hard of hearing; it also “affects everyone in the community,” says Dr. Trychin. Messages get garbled; errands get complicated; and worst of all, a spouse can get tired of trying and lapse into silence. “People stop talking; it’s terrible for relationships,” he says. “Some men may get hearing aids just so they can save their wives from having to repeat themselves.”

If you can relate to this situation, try saying “it’s not you, it’s me.” Someone who’s averse to self-care may be more motivated to address hearing loss as a loving act, one that pleases a partner or loved one.

Or make it about work

If personal relationship issues aren’t the key to this person’s heart, you may want to appeal to someone’s ability to keep his or her job. Seriously: In this job market, someone who is difficult to talk to – for any reason – can be a liability. So bring up the topic gently, saying you notice the person seems to be having a hard time hearing you. Dr. Trychin then suggests questions like these:

  • “Who do you have to understand at work?”
  • “How often do you have to interact with people?”
  • “How important is it to understand what they’re saying?”

You don’t have to be working the customer service desk at Target to understand the absolute need to be responsive and approachable at work.

Outsource the conversation

Often, the person with hearing loss is, you know – aging. And that whole weird changing relationship between adult children and their parents can make it impossible to have a simple conversation about hearing loss that doesn’t crack open a virtual overhead bin of emotional baggage.

This is where a trusted alternate can come in handy. Grandkids, for instance – those adorable and blameless little perfect beings that somehow came from you. Don’t shush them if they want to say, “Grandma, it’s hard to talk to you when I have to yell all the time,” or “Grandpa, I wear my glasses – why won’t you wear some hearing aids?”

Or, if we’re not talking about parents, there’s often someone else who can get through – perhaps a good friend. These conversations don’t have to be super-direct. But they do have to voice the issue. Using “I” language is better than “you” – so “I notice that you seem to be asking me to repeat myself a lot” versus “You really can’t hear well anymore, can you?”

Get general

Many people appreciate an even more roundabout approach. “If you go to the sort of person who doesn’t like to be told what to do, and say they need to get their hearing tested, they might just reply, ‘Oh, what do you know?!,” says Dr. Trychin. “But if they are just beginning to suspect they have hearing loss, bringing up general information on the topic can help ease them into coming to the conclusion all by themselves.”

Bring up a mutual friend: “Remember Harry, who used to play softball with us? He’s having some hearing problems but says there’s a new app that helps.” Or reference something in the media: “I heard on NPR that 48 million people in America have hearing loss. I wonder if I’ll be one of them.” When the information is presented in a non-confrontational way, it can start a conversation that you can oh-so-helpfully have the answers for.

Or get super-specific

Some folks, on the other hand, resist tackling their hearing loss because, quite simply, they don’t know what to do. Kids get yearly hearing tests; that’s how I discovered my four-year-old had moderate to severe hearing loss in one ear. Grownups, however, get no such checkups – in fact, MDs get something like “four hours of training on the ear, and it’s all structure, not function – and certainly nothing on the psychological needs” of people with hearing loss, says Dr. Trychin.

Tell your friend or loved one you have noticed they seem to miss a good chunk of what you say. Offer up the name of the nearest audiologist. If there isn’t one in your area – which happens a lot, Dr. Trychin says – offer to help arrange for a trip to the nearest metropolis. Sometimes, you just have to be the doer.

Whichever path feels best, don’t delay the conversation. “Many people with hearing loss fall into social isolation,” says Dr. Trychin, “which typically leads to depression and loneliness.” Hearing loss adds stress and anxiety to those it affects. Who needs that? Not you – and not your loved ones.