If you haven’t experienced it yourself, maybe you’ve observed it in parents or friends: the strain one person’s hearing loss can put on his or her primary relationship. A new overview of the scientific literature, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Audiology and summarized in Hearing Review, suggests that, indeed, hearing loss in older adults affects their “communication partners” (family members, spouses or significant others) negatively. “What emerges is evidence of restricted social life, burdens in communication, and reduced Quality of Life and relationship satisfaction,” reports Hearing Review.
The link between a person’s hearing loss and social isolation is well documented; a landmark 1999 study found that just 32 percent of survey respondents with untreated “more severe hearing loss” participated regularly in social activities.
But what about the spouses, significant others or primary caregivers of these folks? Rebecca Kamil and Frank Lin, MD, PhD, looked at 24 studies dealing with hearing loss in subjects over 50 years old containing specific data relating to the communication partners. Sixteen of the 24 studies found that hearing loss in one partner led to reduced quality of life for the other. Seven of the studies pointed to communication barriers leading to stress and lower satisfaction with the relationship, while four studies suggested that the communication partner—not just the hearing-impaired person—experienced decreased social interaction as a result of the partner’s hearing loss.
Whither thou goest.
It’s not too difficult to imagine how it happens. First come the minor compromises: no more dinners with friends in noisy restaurants. Then disagreements over the TV volume and frustration when phone calls must be shouted. Huffington Post writer Ann Brenoff describes the dynamic brilliantly in this 2012 article, from the sorrow of missing an old routine (“Do I miss his droll commentary whenever Anderson Cooper does a segment on ’60 Minutes?’ You bet I do”) to the loss of social independence at parties (“he stays close by my side, knowing that I’ll repeat key words of the conversation to enable him to join in. Has this put a crimp in our social life? Absolutely.”).
In between, one can imagine a daily barrage of minor irritations and inconveniences, a tendency to start saying “Never mind” rather than repeat a throwaway comment for the third time, pain felt on behalf of the partner with the hearing loss and the decision that it’s just easier to stay at home than try to negotiate social situations together.
“Hearing loss doesn’t just impact the person whose hearing is diminished,” Brenoff writes. “Everyone who loves them and lives with them suffers. How has my husband’s affliction affected our family? For one, I’m tired of being accused of mumbling, of watching my husband become frustrated when the kids make noise in the backseat and he can’t hear me giving directions when I’m sitting next to him in the car. The kids have slipped into the role of being their Dad’s ‘ears,’ knowing that he won’t understand them the first time; I hear their voices rise when they have to repeat things a third or fourth time and am grateful that there is no accompanying eye rolling or taking advantage of the fact that when he agrees to something, he might not actually have heard the request. “
There is a silver lining. Several of the 24 studies that Kamil and Lin analyzed looked at how treatment of hearing loss—whether through aural rehabilitation, hearing aids or cochlear implants—affected the communication partner. The news is good. “Overall,” the authors write, “these interventions were associated with improvements in [quality of life], relationship satisfaction, communication and social functioning for the CP.”
In other words, if taking action to treat hearing loss can bring back those wiseacre remarks about well-coiffed news anchors, ordinary breakfast table conversations and outings with the church group or friends, the partners of the hearing-impaired would be most grateful. —Traci Hukill