Coping with Hearing Loss

How to convince a loved one to do something about their hearing loss

It’s seldom as easy as saying, “Hey, let’s go shopping today… for hearing aids.” Trying to nudge, cajole and maneuver a loved one into addressing a hearing problem can be a daunting task for a variety of reasons.

First, there’s the nature of hearing loss itself: it’s a gradual condition that lends itself easily to denial. And because it is a physically taxing, isolating condition, it often robs people of the energy to fight. Then there are the disincentives: the so-called stigma of wearing hearing instruments, the perceived expense and loss of independence, or the lack of confidence that the devices will actually work.

As a caregiver, you have your work cut out for you. But perhaps the toughest obstacle to overcome is one you don’t expect: you. If you live with this person or spend a lot of time with him or her, chances are you’ve become a class-A enabler: repeating, explaining, amplifying everything on demand.

You’ve become so good at it that it’s become a reflex, and your loved one is coping just fine — at your expense. You just can’t figure out why you’re so exhausted at the end of the day, or why your throat is hoarse. 

Now you know: it’s because you’re a walking, talking, human hearing aid. Ironically, becoming aware of the enabling role you may be playing could be the beginning of the path to success. Realizing the impact of someone else’s hearing loss on your own life can give you a more empathetic understanding of what the condition is doing to them and to others. You can see a bigger benefit to helping them address their condition: a better life for the whole family. Your own burden may even be the key motivator you need to take action. 

But what action can you take?

  • Walking the fine line between coping and dependency
  • Move beyond the dead-end strategy of coping, take responsibility and seek help
  • Stop being adaptive for your own good

One of the things that defines us as human beings is our amazing ability to cope with loss. We can adapt — physically, mentally and emotionally — to amazing hardships, and hearing loss is no exception.

As a caregiver, you’re probably aware of the common mechanisms that people use to cope with it: moving closer to a speaker to get more of a conversation; asking a speaker to repeat; pretending to hear; and avoiding conversation completely.

The downside of coping

Is coping good or bad? In cases where there’s no opportunity for help, coping can be the only strategy available. But that doesn’t make it a good idea. And with hearing loss, where help is readily available through hearing evaluation and hearing instruments, coping is just a way of kicking the can down the road. It may get someone through the day’s awkward situations, but it also makes it easier to deny the problem and resist taking action. As years go by, growing isolation and depression make seeking the help of hearing instruments more and more challenging.

Your loved one’s goal, and yours too, is to get help — the sooner the better. Coping is not going to get you there.

When caring becomes enabling

You are coaching your loved one through a transformation from a world of isolation to a world of new possibilities. Your relationship plays a key role in the success of this journey. You need to be intimately involved, encouraging, creative and emotionally supporting to your loved one through the struggle. But your close involvement and your passion for helping can put you in danger of crossing over the line from providing support to enabling coping behavior that will defeat you both.

A common and dangerous coping strategy that crosses this line, one that’s so natural that it’s almost unconscious, is reaching out and manipulating caregivers into taking over the problem and doing all the work. How do you know when you’ve crossed this line? When, prompted by your desire to help and to make things feel normal, you find yourself overprotecting and overcompensating on your loved one’s behalf. You proactively avoid social situations that might challenge your loved one’s hearing. You pick up their end of a conversation. You find yourself maneuvered into interpreting, taking phone messages and otherwise functioning as a human hearing aid.

In other words, your helpful nature has, almost without your knowing it, made you a co-conspirator in the denial and coping that present constant obstacles to getting help. It’s not always easy to recognize this situation when you’re in it. Everything seems to run smoothly. And you’re feeling good, in a codependent way, because you are helping. In actuality, you’ve crossed the line, and you’re not helping your loved one make progress.