From Bad to Worse – When Seniors with Hearing Loss Deal with Masks

by | Mar 5, 2021 | Aging Posts, Jewish Aging

By Rabbi Barbara Aiello

The Covid-19 era has created myriad life style changes for seniors among them the social isolation that results from limited contact with others. So imagine how happy Lydia was when she noticed that right in front of her in the grocery checkout line, albeit socially distant by six feet or more, stood Ruthie one of her very best friends.

Of course Lydia was wearing her Covid mask – she wouldn’t venture out without it. Ruthie had her mask on as well. It boasted a three-layered flower pattern that matched the scarf that she’d tied around her sun hat.

“Ruthie, Ruthie,” was Lydia’s muffled cry. “Dahling, it’s been ages. And I must say that’s quite a hat!”

Ruthie squared her shoulders. “Lydia, you haven’t seen me in months and the first thing you say is that I look fat?”

While she tapped her head, Lydia strained to hear her friend. “It’s your hat.  Hat on your head. It’s a nice match with your mask.”

Ruthie responded, “Sure we wear masks but we don’t have matching masks.

Lydia is now shaking her head; “It’s a match. Your mask and your hat.”

Ruthie, still miffed, mutters; “ OK, I put on a few pounds but stop saying that I’m fat!”

Thanks to health professional and author Joy Stepheson-Laws we learn that Lydia’s and Ruthie’s dilemma is not unique.  In her article “How to Overcome Boomer Hearing Challenges in a Masked World,” (Sixty and Me 11/15/20),  Ms. Stephenson-Laws discusses hearing loss among seniors and how these difficulties are exacerbated when masks cover both the speaker’s  and the listener’s mouth.

Ms. Stephenson-Laws explains that since seventy percent of seniors who are 70 years or older experience some degree of hearing loss, the wearing of a facial mask can create special challenges for them in three main areas; volume, clarity and process.

When Lydia met Ruthie in the supermarket, she began to speak with her friend in what was, most likely, her normal tone. Specialists have determined that when the mouth is covered by a mask, the volume of the person speaking is diminished by as much as 12 decibels. If Ruthie’s friend Lydia or any speaker is soft-spoken, the listener may hear nothing above a whisper.

When a mask covers the speaker’s mouth, speech clarity suffers. The spoken word becomes muffled, garbled and often distorted creating misunderstandings such as Ruthie’s confusing “hat” with “fat.”

Understanding what is said to us is a process that combines facial expressions, smiles, frowns, quizzical contortions, mugging, and even wrinkling the nose. Ms. Stephenson-Laws reminds us that “a facial covering makes it very difficult to detect and process the multitude of facial cues” … that give speech “emotional context”.

Just like Lydia and Ruthie, it was almost impossible for Ruthie to discern what Lydia was trying to tell her, while Lydia was frustrated because Ruthie was obviously annoyed.

Apparently mask wearing will be with us for a while and if so, what can be done to increase communication and comprehension while our noses and mouths are covered.  Ms. Stephenson-Laws offers suggestions for both the listener and the speaker.

If you are the speaker, speak as clearly as you can and take a pause between words and phrases. Avoid having conversations in noisy venues where a television or loud music compete for the listener’s attention. Find a quiet place to talk or better yet, use your Smart Phone to take advantage of texting. Writing your message will assure that your listener has understood – especially if the conversation includes important dates, times and places.

Remember that body language and gestures play a large part in completing the loop of understanding. Lean forward, shrug your shoulders, point, and shake your head so that your listener has every opportunity to comprehend what you’ve said.

If you are the listener and pre-Covid you experienced hearing challenges, be aware that now it is even more important that you serve as your own advocate. That means asking friends and family to speak more slowly and to repeat when you aren’t sure what was said.

Remember that louder isn’t always better; asking the speaker to use lower tones is often more effective. Carry a notebook and pen so that you can ask the speaker to write the question or comment thus avoiding misunderstanding. And if you wear hearing aids Ms. Stephenson-Laws cautions that “using a mask with ties rather than elastic or fixed ear loops (will) help you better fit your mask and reduce the risk of the mask knocking your hearing aid out of your ear.”

Speaking through a mask and understanding what the “mask-er” has said requires patience.  Abigail Treu, writing for JTS Torah OnLine (12/11/20) reminds us that Jewish tradition emphasizes that “patience is one of the key character traits we are to focus on in our spiritual, ethical, and emotional development.”

Indeed Rabbi Menachem Mendel defines the trait of savlanut, patience, as “when something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, do not aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief.”

Abigail Treu goes on to say that “underneath patience lies hope. In fact, kivah in Hebrew means both wait and hope.”

While we wait for the pandemic to dissipate and hope for a worldwide cure, there are actions that we can take, no matter how small, that will build bridges of understanding between us. Speaking and listening will help us stay connected and although there will be challenges – Just ask Ruthie and Lydia – our sages tell us that patience will see us through.