There’s no doubt that good health doesn’t just mean freedom from serious illness.
We know factors that once seemed unrelated to our physical health – social interaction, economic stability, and the environment around us – can have a significant effect on our quality of life. And the link between good mental health and good physical health is even more apparent. Patients with mental health conditions have been found to be at higher risk of dying from cancer, respiratory issues, and heart disease.
Many of us take for granted the simple abilities we possess that help us keep our mental health in good shape. For example, we can interact with friends and family, express our needs and emotions, and ask for assistance when it’s needed, thanks to our ability to communicate. But for many seniors, these abilities are no longer a given. Common communication disorders may prevent them from feeling part of their community, alienate them from their peers, or even make it difficult to provide critical feedback to their caregivers or doctors.
Each May, a number of national public health associations recognize May as Better Hearing and Speech Month, a time to raise awareness about the common health issues that affect our ability to communicate to the world around us. Skilled nursing facility clinicians and staff must recognize these issues and understand how they affect your residents’ overall health. Let’s learn more about what common communication problems your residents might be facing and how they can impact their quality of life.
What Are Common Communications Issues in the Elderly?
The most common problems that may diminish your residents’ ability to communicate are hearing loss and speech impairment.
- Hearing Loss
Hearing loss is very prevalent among seniors – nearly a third of adults over the age of 70 and half of adults over the age of 85 experience hearing loss that affects their ability to communicate on a daily basis.
Many factors can lead to hearing loss, including exposure to loud noise, head or ear trauma, medical conditions, and genetics, but the most common cause of hearing loss is aging. Known as presbycusis, hearing loss due to aging is typically gradual and is caused by damage that occurs over time to the tiny hair cells in the nerves of the ear. Common symptoms may include:
- Muffled hearing
- Difficulty understanding speech
- A “stuffy” sensation in the affected ear(s)
- Tinnitus or ringing in the ear(s)
- Speech Impairment
As we age, we are also more susceptible to issues that affect our ability to speak clearly and be understood by others. Common causes of speech impairment in older adults include illnesses such as cancer or stroke,  traumatic brain injury, degenerative neurological disorders, and dementia.Multiple types of speech impairments can result from these causes, Untreated hearing loss impacts seniors’ ability to participate in social activities and often leads to feelings of isolation, anxiety, and paranoia, as does impaired speech.
Hearing loss has also been linked to dementia. A direct connection between the two isn’t clear, but social isolation – a recognized effect of hearing loss – is a risk factor for dementia. And those suffering from hearing loss often have to work harder to process others’ speech, taking away precious cognitive resources from other tasks like the ability to recall memories.
Taking It for Granted
It’s easy for most of us to forget how critical it is to our overall health and well-being to communicate with others, whether that means sharing a joke with a friend or transmitting important information in an emergency. For residents in your skilled nursing facility, being able to communicate freely may be a privilege they no longer enjoy. But by understanding and recognizing the obstacles they face – and using your skills to help them overcome those obstacles – you can give them a chance to regain their independence and experience better overall health outcomes.