If an aged care resident’s hearing loss is not identified, it can lead to a frustrating experience for residents, care workers and relatives alike, writes Michelle Lawson.

While the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety is still underway, the findings of the interim report were clear; the current system fails to meet the needs of our most vulnerable community members when they most need compassion and support.

Specifically, the report stated that the current care system is “unkind”, “uncaring” and that the care experiences of some can best be described as a “shocking case of neglect”.

For all Australians, the year 2020 has been like no other; together we have lived through drought, catastrophic bushfires and now the ongoing impact of the global pandemic. While some of the challenges rekindled our shared sense of resilience, mateship and kindness, others divided and left us feeling disconnected.

Lockdown, border closures, remote working and the disruption of our normal routines have impacted our ability to interact and support one another. The feeling of being isolated or apart is one that the Connect Hearing team is too familiar with; we see it with our clients who are experiencing the effects of hearing loss on a daily basis.

Michelle Lawson

According to the findings of our new research, which involved a survey of 1,162 adults in November 2020, Australians feel unheard; are frustrated, disconnected and excluded. In fact, 89 per cent of Australians have experienced first-hand what it feels like to be unheard.

For many senior Australians, this is nothing new, with the report revealing that one in five Australians aged 55 or over believe they are not being heard because of their age (19 per cent). This is even higher for those with hearing loss (22 per cent).

The first aged care quality Standard anchors to dignity and choice, but how can we protect this value and ensure that those in care are respected and can make informed choices, if they can’t hear us, or if we can’t communicate clearly with them?

When we are heard we feel respected, valued and connected. So, what is the next step in ensuring hearing health is not overlooked as part of our commitment to providing quality care?

Unheard and isolated

Feelings of frustration, isolation and anxiety are regularly identified by those suffering from hearing loss when they first seek help.

While friends and family often try their best to support loved ones who are suffering from hearing loss, in certain situations it can be too difficult to accommodate. Those struggling to hear will find themselves pushed to the side at family gatherings because when they can’t hear, they can’t contribute to the conversation.

Unfortunately, this can be a familiar situation in aged care. If hearing loss is not identified when a resident arrives, their care experience can be frustrating for the resident, care workers, other residents and visiting family members.

Feeling heard can mean the difference between healthy and positive relationships with family members, friends, and those we rely on for care and feelings of frustration and isolation.

A fractured relationship and feelings of being at odds with those around you can be a sign of the impact of hearing loss. The toll of hearing loss is felt by all, but for the person who cannot hear, the effort of trying to tune into conversations and stay across key moments can be stressful and draining.

Connect to be heard

When a person is continually unheard, it starts to erode their confidence and sense of self-worth in more profound ways.

While one in three Australians believe they fail to achieve cut-through when speaking because their audience is too distracted to listen to them, for the rest, it is personal. From thinking their opinion is not valued (28 per cent) to simply being too boring to be heard (18 per cent), it’s enough to dent anyone’s self-belief in their own value.

Around the people who know us well we can often hide the tell-tale signs of hearing loss, such as asking a person to repeat themselves or trying to guess and fill in the blanks when we can’t hear.

This is much harder to do when you are meeting a person for the first time, navigating new experiences in a care environment or trying to fit in with a new group. If not addressed, the person will struggle mentally and emotionally.

There is a strong link between good hearing health and our emotional wellbeing that cannot be ignored. Regular hearing tests are essential for all Australians, especially people aged over 50 or those in aged care.

Aged care facilities must prioritise consistent hearing health, testing and the correct maintenance of hearing devices to ensure residents feel heard, connected and respected.

Michelle Lawson is managing director of Connect Hearing, a national network of healthcare hearing clinics across Australia.

Access the Connect and Be Heard research report here.

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