Aging: Everybody's Doing It
As we age, nerve and sensory cells of the inner ear decline and die off. As a result, auditory signals to the brain aren't relayed. The damage to the ear doesn't really affect your parent's ability to pick up the volume of sounds. What it does affect is the ability distinguish sounds. Consonants such as “s,” “f,” and “p” are hard to pick up, and so are high-pitched sounds.
So what changes can any normal person over 60 expect from his or her body? There are quite a few changes, and of course, everybody's different, but in the rest of this chapter I'll tell you about the five most common changes.
The Vision Thing
Notice how fashionable those drug store reading glasses are becoming? They're even sold at the trendy bookstores where you might have picked up this book. It might have something to do with the fact that millions of baby boomers are experiencing one of the first signs of aging.
As we age, the lens of the eye begins to become more rigid, which leads to a form of farsightedness called presbyopia, in which the eye cannot focus easily on close objects. By the time your parents are in their 60s and 70s this condition becomes much more pronounced. They will also be noticing other changes. Glare, especially from headlights can actually blind them and certainly pose problems for nighttime driving. They'll find it difficult to see in dimly lit rooms and hallways. Refocusing takes longer when they're going from light to dark rooms. It's harder to distinguish between colors. Contrasts and shadows become more difficult to decipher making it troublesome to go down steps or walk along sidewalks.
Most of these vision problems can be dealt with by making sure the halls are well lit in your parents' home, that the house isn't a cluttered obstacle course, especially in high traffic areas, and that your parents get annual eye exams. Their eyesight is far too precious for them to lose.
What Did You Say?
My kids and husband are getting pretty tired of me saying, “What?” I complain that they're all mumbling or there's too much noise in the background. But I know the real reason—it's just hard to admit it when I've just turned 50. But hey, there's President Clinton sporting a hearing aid. Of course, he has a cool reason for it: too many loud concerts in the 1960s.
The fact of the matter is, hearing loss begins earlier than we think. By the time your parents and their friends made it to their 60s—one out of three already had significant hearing loss. Half of everyone over 75 years has a real hard time hearing. Men are affected more than women. Lot's of researchers think that being exposed to loud sounds throughout life has a lot to do with hearing loss. It's that slow, bit-by-bit nature of losing his hearing that lulls Dad into thinking he really hasn't lost it yet. Certainly not enough to make him want to buy a hearing aid.
Nerve deafness will cause your parent to confuse words that sound alike. A conversation like this might take place:
You: “Hey Mom, it's time to take your pill.”
Mom: “Fill? Okay dear, I'll fill your coffee in a minute.”
Background noise blurs hearing even more. So talking in a restaurant, at a family gathering, or with a TV in the background makes it doubly hard for older people to understand what you and their friends are saying.
When carrying on a conversation becomes real work, you'll find Dad starting to withdraw rather than deal with the hassle. You also might find him getting argumentative because he misunderstands what you're saying. And you'll find yourself withdrawing, too. You'll start yelling at him because you think that pumping up the volume is the answer. But it's not a volume problem, so he takes your talking louder as an insult. He just can't figure out what you're saying. You both end up annoyed. Besides, the more you raise your voice, the higher pitched your voice becomes, making it harder for him to distinguish sounds.
Make sure Mom and Dad have their hearing checked by a physician who is a specialist in hearing. An otolaryngologist or otologist can determine any physical reasons causing your parents' hearing loss. The physician might then refer Mom or Dad to a certified audiologist who has graduate training in hearing impairment and will be able to determine the degree of hearing loss your parent is experiencing. Don't assume it's an “age thing” and take your parent to people who sell hearing aids as your first step.
Even though everybody suffers hearing loss associated with age, getting Dad to get his hearing checked may hit a wall of resistance. A hearing aid is like a neon sign flashing OLD MAN. It's an old stigma that really needs to go. Focus on what he's losing out on. The conversations with his grand kids, the fact that the two of you are talking less to each other, and how Mom is missing their old dinner conversations. Let him know that hearing aids aren't what they used to be when his Dad used one. They're a lot smaller and well hidden. Some of the new hearing aids (I have one) are computerized and automatically adjust the background noise. The audiologist can specifically lower sounds that you personally find annoying, such as the clattering of dishes in a restaurant (or my teenagers asking for my ATM card). The new technology is amazing. Don't let your parents make a decision not to get a hearing aid based on outdated stereotypes!
An exam by a physician might reveal that your Dad doesn't need a hearing aid, after all. (Another reason to convince him to go to the doctor.) Older folks build up thicker and drier earwax. Too much of this in front of Dad's eardrum will cause hearing loss, so he might just need a good old ear cleaning. Or he might have excess fluid in the inner ear, an ear infection, or a hereditary condition. Some of these conditions can be corrected through surgery or medication. Only a specialized physician can determine the best course for your parent.
If Dad does get a hearing aid, don't expect him to take to it like a fish to water. It takes getting used to and some training. One in four people who try out hearing aids, end up stashing them in their bedroom dresser. So make sure Dad sees someone who will give him training and offers at least a 30-day trial. Plan on taking him back at least once to fine-tune the device. And by the way, Medicare does not cover hearing aids. Shop around for price.
Self Help for Hard of Hearing People is a nonprofit, educational organization that offers good links and information and identifies free screening sites throughout the country during annual Hearing Loss Week. Contact them at 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 1200, Bethesda, MD 20814; 301-657-2248.
Here are some tips to help you make hearing easier for your parents:
- Talk a little slower, not louder.
- Take the time to pronounce your words.
- Hold the same level of conversation you've always had; in other words, don't talk down to them.
- Start the conversation with the subject you're going to talk about: “Hey, Dad, about that ball game last night.” When you change the subject, introduce the new topic, “And another thing Dad, let's talk about Mom's birthday.”
- Use facial expressions and gestures: Point, touch, nod.
- Make sure you are both looking at each other.
- Cut down background noise: Shut off the TV, radio, or dishwasher, and at restaurants search for the quieter spots.
- Don't ramble. Use direct, straightforward sentences and pause a moment between them.
- Make sure there's enough light so you can see each other and that it's not shining in their eyes.
More on: Aging Parents
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Caring for Aging Parents © 2001 by Linda Colvin Rhodes, Ed.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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