We’ve learned many things from the COVID-19 pandemic, from how best to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe from infection to how miracles of science can happen with the full attention and cooperation of some of our world’s brightest minds. But one unexpected outcome of the pandemic is the confirmation that people desperately need to communicate with each other. Communication is essential, not only to transmit necessary information but also to make personal connections, feel we are part of our communities, and safeguard our own mental well-being.
The world is beginning to emerge from the pandemic’s effects, and many of us are making tentative steps to resume our in-person visits with friends and family. But we do so with a greater appreciation for what it feels like to lose the ability to communicate with each other – something that many residents in your facility likely deal with each and every day.
As we age, many factors come into play that can decrease our ability to communicate clearly. Your residents, for example, may suffer from communications disorders or hearing loss, or they may be less likely to understand things you say to them cognitively. And as we continue to socially distance and wear personal protective equipment in an effort to stall transmission of the COVID-19 virus, you may have noticed increased difficulty communicating with your residents. Masks muffle voices and make it impossible to read lips, and it is more difficult to hear others who are speaking from far away.
As we celebrate National Better Hearing and Speech Month in May, it’s a good time for skilled nursing facility clinicians and staff to learn about how communication issues affect your residents’ overall health, and what you can do to help them preserve their ability to communicate for years to come.
Common Communications Issues and Their Effect on Overall Health
The most common problems that may diminish your residents’ ability to communicate are hearing loss and speech impairment.
Nearly a third of adults over the age of 70 and half of adults over the age of 85 experience hearing loss. The most common cause of hearing loss is presbycusis, or hearing loss due to aging, which is typically gradual and caused by damage that occurs over time to the tiny hair cells in the nerves of the ear.
Research has shown that hearing impairment is the most common chronic condition associated with depression in adults over the age of 65, and untreated hearing often leads to feelings of isolation, anxiety, and paranoia. 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.
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.
How to Protect and Preserve Your Residents’ Ability to Communicate
Here are a few simple ways you can help your residents improve and preserve their hearing and speech:
- Identify and treat any hearing or speech problems as soon as possible. It’s important to make sure your residents are checked regularly by a trained otolaryngologist or audiologist who can diagnose and suggest treatment options for any hearing problems.
- Help your residents and their caregivers understand why the use of assistive devices like hearing aids is critical. Assistive equipment can be costly and is generally not covered by Medicare, so a resident or caregiver may be reluctant to take the audiologist’s advice. A recent study showed that half of seniors who could have benefitted from hearing aids never purchased them due to their cost. It’s critical for you to talk with your residents and their caregivers about the importance of assistive devices and how they can improve your residents’ quality of life
- Help your residents protect the hearing they have left by monitoring their exposure to loud noise. The ambient noise level in a skilled nursing facility can be surprisingly high, and anything you can do to help manage the noise level in your facility will help your residents retain their hearing ability while in your care.
- Talk to your residents and their caregivers about the benefits of speech therapy. For residents who have speech issues due to a medical condition such as a stroke, a speech therapy evaluation and treatment plan could be pivotal in helping them communicate.