Helping those with hearing loss enjoy holiday gatherings!

Socializing during the holidays does not come easy. As a hearing care professional, there are tips you can give your clients with hearing loss so they can enjoy the best bits of holiday gatherings – like what their loved ones are saying!

Christmas festivities in Switzerland typically involve fondue, crisp white wine, snowy Christmas markets and …socializing.  The resplendent lights and joyous crowds in Zurich can‘t help but to stir a sense of joy and happiness for the holiday season, except the merry conversations typically occur in acoustically challenging places. Maybe it was a Freudian slip of consciousness when I misheard “look at the lights“ for this really bites. 

In short, socializing for the hard of hearing does not come easy.  What is easy, is to claim socializing with hearing loss is hopeless. This could mean sending a message on the RSVP card with the comment – “I am otherwise engaged” - not mentioning of course the more engaging activity involves a tub of Mövenpick ice cream and subtitled Netflix.  

Withdrawal is oftentheselfdefeating behavior of choice for the hard of hearing. And it’s easy to see why, it saves the moment by freeing everyone from an awkward situation. But, what is hard to see is how withdrawal causes damage in the long term for both the person with hearing loss and those in his/her life.  Most of us who are hard of hearing don’t notice how often we fade into the background when we cannot hear well, nor do we understand how our withdrawal sinks both ourselves and our loved ones further into negative spirals of isolation/loneliness, miscommunication and  participation restrictions, all leading reduced social functioning. There is no denying, socializing is like any skill, when neglected it withers. 

Withdrawal is a paradoxical behavior that accompanies hearing loss, but does it have to be?   

I believe hearing care professionals can encourage their clients to structure circumstances and make small changes that nudge socializing to be more hearing inclusive? Behavioral economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein introduced with their book “Nudge” the idea that small changes in the context of a situation could help people make decisions that are more productive in the long term.1    

There are websites2,3 that provide tips for speaking with a person with hearing loss and the suggestions are very helpful in one-to-one conversations to improve understanding, but what is often overlooked are the small changes those of us with hearing loss (and family and friends) could make to the environment that enable the person with hearing loss to stay social, instead of exiting stage left when the situation becomes unbearable or frustrating. 

Here are four tips you can give your clients to use this holiday:

  1. Locate the ‘oasis of calm’ for communication
    Don’t withdraw from the conversation, withdraw from acoustically incompatible situations. This strategy is about encouraging social participation by creating hearing friendly spaces that promote inclusion by shaping the room for hearing comfort. For me, this means I usually hang out in the kitchen, an alcove or an adjacent room – places that will have fewer people and less traffic, hence less ambient noise. When using this strategy, tell your clients to consider where the ‘oasis’ is placed. Can the quiet zone be located off the main path to the bathroom, buffet or bar? Ensuring there is a rotation of people to socialize with. If they skip this step, they run the great risk of triggering feelings of isolation, which may lead to helping out gathering the plates or glasses instead of enjoying after-dinner conversations.

  2. Stage master the soundscape (improve the signal-to-noise ratio)
    Heavy curtains go a long way in absorbing sound, and when pulled across windows, they help reduce the overall loudness and reverberation in a room.  Actually, anything that has a smooth, reflective surface should be covered with cloth to reduce sound reflection. An often forgotten source of reverberation are glass tables, a thick table cloth would do wonders in blocking unwanted sound (and unwanted views of below table shenanigans). An additional way to ensure your hard of hearing clients are given all the help they need is by reminding them to put a bit of thought into seating. Optimally, a round table provides the opportunity not just to see gestures but also to read lips, whereas sitting in rows limits communication to the people on the immediate left or right. If a round table is not an option, encourage them to sit at the end of the table where they have the potential to see the faces of the people to their left and right.

  3. Take a break
    Remind your clients that they will need to take breaks, let their ears rest a bit.  Cognitively, listening is hard work for them; encourage them to take opportunities to step out of the room. Muddling through overwhelming noise will come at a great cost: exhaustion. Filtering out ambient noise with hearing aids or cochlear implants requires more cognitive energy. If they want to make it to midnight for that New Year’s smooch, they need to give themselves permission to recharge in quiet. Maybe they can recharge by helping with the dishes in the quiet kitchen or by taking out the trash.

  4. Pull out that Mic
    Traditionally FM systems or remote microphones were designed for formal communication settings, like a classroom or a conference room, where there tended to be only one primary speaker. The new generation of remote microphones, like Roger™, remove that limitation, but old habits die hard. You could remind the loved ones of your clients to take an interest in their partner’s remote microphone and encourage its use. Family gatherings are an excellent opportunity for the person with hearing loss to explore and fine tune using a remote mic in a safe group setting and in different acoustic conditions.

Small changes make for happier gatherings

The holidays are a time to come together and celebrate the joy that each person brings into our lives, it is also a time to reflect on how our actions and words influence others. 

To really change our environments to promote inclusion, we all play a part in making inclusion happen. Doing so begins with the way we act, by modeling good communication behaviors and providing opportunities to others to do the same. If your clients with hearing loss implement all of the suggestions above, it will not ensure every word spoken will be heard and understood, but by taking these small steps we can create an affective spiral that promotes good communication.