By Jack Cumming

This three-part series explores the challenge of hearing impairment among the residents in senior living communities. It’s a prevalent challenge that offers the opportunity for providers to demonstrate added value.

In parts 1 and 2, we discussed hearing aids, where to buy them, and what the challenges are. In this part, we explore specific steps that providers can take to accommodate those who have hearing challenges.

It Starts in the Dining Room

Central to any congregate senior living residence is the dining experience. That’s where residents have the best chance to get to know one another and to come together as a community. Have you ever noticed that the longer residents live in your community, or the older they become, the less often they come to dine? Hearing is often one reason that they begin to prefer takeout dining in their residence.

Those standard behind-the-ear hearing aids have their microphones outside the ear and facing toward the back of the wearer’s head. Think about that; it makes little sense. It’s probably intended to avoid feedback with the speaker, which is inserted in the ear canal. But aren’t the curves of our ears carefully fashioned by Providence to channel what we want to hear toward the source? Hearing aids do the reverse. The channeling is toward the back. It’s crazy.

Why They Stay Home

Now, you may be asking, “What does that have to do with dining?” Picture the typical dining hall in a senior living residence. It’s a large room with many tables. That makes serving easier, but it doesn’t lend itself to close, intimate conversation, and it’s impossible for those behind-the-ear hearing aids to work properly.

Unless the wearer lands a coveted spot in a nook against a wall, it’s the conversations and clatter from the larger room that are amplified. The conversation at the table is lost in the shuffle, and the wearer of a hearing device has to guess what the conversation might be.

Imagine that’s you. You react to the loss of comprehension either by trying to dominate the conversation so hearing becomes less critical. Or, you feel out of it, as though you’re no longer relevant or even a desirable dinner companion. The truth is that not hearing does make a person less fun at dinner. It doesn’t have to be like that.

Cold Décor

Too often senior living dining halls are designed by interior decorators or architects with little concern for the hearing challenges common among older people. The simple expedient of using bunting and draping to mute echoing, which muddles the nondirectional sounds perceived by the hearing impaired, can make a big difference.

Smaller, more intimate dining settings, perhaps with dining booths, can improve both hearing and the dining experience. Think of restaurants that provide that comfortable feeling of welcome that a booth or nook can give. That’s even more welcoming for those with hearing challenges.

Not only can more intimate dining help with hearing, but it also can make your community seem more up-to-date and consistent with the trend toward less centralized dining and more dining venues. Residents like choice, and you can provide it with specialty dining options ranging from quick grab-and-go to upscale dining for an upcharge.

Mess Hall Vs. Friendly Dining

If your dining still seems similar to a military mess hall, perhaps with tablecloths, with a mix of large, round tables scattered among four-person tables, it’s time to rethink what the coming generation of prospects are going to find desirable. They are often still active, and so they like a choice between dining on the run and the relaxing ambiance of haute cuisine.

Happily, catering to the choice generation can also help you to better serve the older, hearing challenged residents. Thus, better hearing begins with better dining. Better dining and specialty dining can unlock the creativity of the kitchen staff, making the work more fun, and can make your facility seem more like life beyond the walls.

Beyond Dining

This same thinking applies to all of the common areas. Do you have gathering rooms with quadraphonic speakers pointed at each other? No wonder the hearing impaired complain about the experience. The sound from those speakers arrives everywhere other than the center of the room, out of phase and muddled for the hearing challenged.

Younger staff, and many more fortunate residents, may not even notice the sound muddling those misplaced speakers create. Speakers should always be at the front of the room where the sound originates and placed high enough on the walls so that the sound has a direct line to the listening ears of the audience.

Homelike Ambiance

Likewise, the acoustics can easily be improved, i.e., dampening echoes with bunting and drapes. Moreover, the fabrics that soften the sound can also make the room warmer and more inviting. Current fashion leans toward techno, with cold greys and blues reminiscent of lingering winter, but most humans prefer the warmth of fall and spring colors, not to mention a preference for fabrics over metallic flat surfaces.

Those decorating and architectural fads of utilitarian function may display well in decorating and architectural magazines, but a more human environment is more comfortable for everyday living.

News flash to life enrichment: Music at a social party, as delightful as it may be, can make conversation impossible for the hearing challenged. Unless there’s a safe hearing zone — preferably with chairs, since many who are hearing impaired also find it difficult to stand for long periods — the party atmosphere may exclude the very residents who most need the socialization.

Family Informality

Hearing is a challenge that is readily addressable, and in the process, addressing it can improve senior living for everyone. Let’s put that family feeling of informality back into the homes of those we serve. That requires thinking practically, beyond the conventional. It also requires accepting responsibility for what’s best instead of insisting on the chill concepts of decorators.

Senior living should be the kind of place where you relax, feel at home, and find friends, and where you are pleasantly surprised by how the provider has thought of the challenges of aging — including diminished hearing — and made allowances that make you feel well cared for and sheltered.