Often in talks or in publications we hear about “healthy aging” or “living well”. A major obstacle to living well as we age is the stigma that is placed on conditions we face as we grow older. With more birthdays come more health conditions that carry a stigma, and one of these conditions that face stigma is hearing loss. Studies have shown that outsiders consider people with hearing loss to be old, senile, or socially unfit. This stigma can keep people from seeking the treatment they need to improve their hearing. Often people aware of this stigma hold the same prejudicial views about their stigmatizing condition, consciously or not. I have experienced this myself when providing hearing test results to a patient and hearing them say, “I’m not old enough yet to wear hearing aids”.
The unfortunate fact is that those that experience self-stigma about their hearing loss are likely to develop maladaptive behaviors. These include denying they have hearing loss, accusing others of not speaking plainly, or minimizing their hearing loss (“my hearing loss isn’t that bad”). The most damaging maladaptive behavior is withdrawing from social settings. By avoiding situations where their hearing loss is a threat to them, they socially isolate themselves. This can lead to depression and have a negative impact on one’s general health.
For someone in this situation, the most important thing they can do is to talk to others that experience hearing loss and have treated their hearing impairment. By sharing their experiences with hearing difficulties and their unsatisfactory social interactions, they can come to realize that other people with hearing loss have the same feelings of ineptitude and self-denigration. They begin to realize these feelings are normal, and as a result, start to develop a more positive attitude about themselves. By owning and accepting their hearing loss, they learn to talk to others about it that don’t have hearing loss. They can begin to advocate for themselves and experience more positive social interactions as a result. When someone is willing to accept they have a hearing loss, they are more likely to accept treatment, such as hearing aids. Treatment allows them to overcome activity limitations and fully participate in activities they may have avoided prior to treatment.
Often patients share with me that by getting hearing aids, they have come to realize that living with untreated hearing loss carries more of a stigma than wearing hearing aids. By accepting their hearing loss and opening their minds to the idea of treatment, they learn that while hearing loss carries stigma, hearing aids do not. Treating hearing loss allows people to stay active within their community and contribute meaningfully to meetings and social settings. Wearing hearing aids may also allow you to live independently longer. One recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that the more someone is exposed to stigma associated with getting older, the more chronic health issues they may have. This is important as self-stigma towards hearing loss leads to isolation and these negative feelings towards themselves can also carry health implications.
If you know someone that is struggling to accept their hearing loss, I encourage you to have a successful hearing aid user talk to them. By sharing our feelings and experiences, we can help each other live better lives.