Photo credit: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Growing old can be terrifying if you’re unprepared for its physical challenges. And, if English is your second language, hearing loss can severely compound that experience.

Because my immigrant mother’s English is limited, she’s always missed out on American societal nuances. Now, that she’s older and losing her hearing, she disregards anything she doesn’t immediately comprehend. Often, we write notes to each other in both English and Japanese romaji, as we find that less frustrating than my shouting while she tries to read my lips.

Recently, I accompanied her to Bates Technical College in Tacoma where I spoke with Hearing Instrument Program Instructor Marci Leong, Au.D. (Doctor of Audiology). An audiologist for 23 years, Leong was inspired to make it her career after she “stumbled” upon a speech and hearing class in college.

Leong’s job is identifying and managing any non-medical aspects of hearing and balance problems while her students fit and dispense hearing aids, remedying problems through amplification.

“Hearing,” Leong explains, “affects all aspects of our lives, but while vision connects people to objects, hearing connects them to the living world. It’s an alert system for basic personal safety, and the vehicle that allows people to learn language, and to share thoughts and ideas with each other.”

APA seniors may be more susceptible to hearing loss, Leong thinks, not because of genetics, but because of wars. Besides APA’s serving in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, young military men in Asia were also “exposed to artillery and explosions” that Leong says can lead to irreversible hearing loss.

Further, some civilians tolerated the same violent sounds. During WWII, my mother’s Tokyo hometown was relentlessly bombed. Her husband, an Air Force retiree, first broached the idea that explosions contributed to her eventual hearing loss.

According to Leong, APA elders are more passive about hearing problems than other Americans. They come to her at a more advanced stage, where they won’t benefit as much from hearing aids.

Their children, used to communication snafus with their parents, also react slowly. Asian cultures tend to revere the elderly, so even adult kids won’t disrespect their folks by pushing them to seek help. Since childhood, I’ve adjusted to my mother’s limited English rather than force her into fluency. My role as an interpreter began the first time a native speaker ignored her and claimed to me, “I can’t understand what your mother’s saying.”

“People with hearing loss are more prone to social isolation, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem,” Leong states. “They may feel embarrassed, frustrated, defensive and irritable when in social situations.”

They’re also neglected by those who feel it’s too difficult to communicate, or who mistakenly believe they’re unfriendly because of their unresponsiveness to what they can’t hear.

“Listening involves the ear, the eye and the brain,” Leong clarifies. “Non-native speakers will have the added difficulties of translation on top of hearing loss. ESL speakers will definitely have a more difficult time.”

Because Bates is a learning institution, more time is available to spend with patients. Leong’s students are guided through the evaluation process until they get it right.

Leong feels spiritually uplifted whenever a patient’s quality of life improves through “relearning and recognizing lost sounds.” And, she sees her Asian heritage as a plus.

“Growing up in a community where there were language barriers … definitely gives me an advantage in working with people of all backgrounds experiencing communication problems,” she says.

Although she sometimes has to work harder to gain respect because of her gender, youth, third generation status, and English as her only language, it’s easier for her to troubleshoot problems because she understands Asian family dynamics and social expectations.

Besides suggesting family members get “a baseline hearing test” to determine communication problems and assistance, Leong also recommends:

1. face the person when speaking,

2. speak slowly and pause between thoughts,

3. don’t try to speak from another room to get responses,

4. move away from noise,

5. if you must speak in a slightly louder than normal volume, do not shout,

6. introduce a topic change in conversation,

7. do not repeat if misunderstood, instead rephrase.

Although hearing aids can’t correct hearing loss, Leong says they “pave the path for improved communications”, adding that, “Re-educating the brain to use sound again takes time. A proper hearing aid fit relies on the patient and the professional working together to achieve the best possible outcomes.”

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