For those with hearing loss, masks can complicate communication

Medical Watch
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Masks. They protect us from the virus that causes COVID-19, but they mask our expressions and speech. And for those who rely on reading lips as a way to compensate for hearing loss, it’s been a struggle to turn up the volume during the pandemic. 

Dan Parrilli is an hearing aid patient and uses an app to adjust the hearing aids he’s been wearing for six years.

“Before that I had never heard a bird chirp or many sounds,” he said.

Diagnosed with profound hearing loss, a condition he’s had since childhood, the 74-year-old from Skokie said the devices freed him of the life-long isolation he felt as a result of his impairment. 

But now masks have out-powered his high-tech devices and hindered his ability to use a secondary tool — speech recognition.

“My hearing aids are incredibly technologically advanced, but nothing will overcome a mask,” he said. “I believe there is probably 40 percent or more of what I hear is something I see in the person I’m talking to. Now I don’t have that.” 

Audiologist Dr. Marie Vetter Toalson, with Chicago Hearing Services, said has seen a steady increase in patients seeking a solution during the pandemic.

“A lot of people think, ‘I just hear with my ears,’” she said. “But listening involves hand gestures, lip reading speech reading, looking at the context and then also hearing or detecting the speech or environmental noise. And then we put that all together to get the comprehension that’s needed to understand the conversation.”

Donna Doyle got fitted back in June with barely-noticeable devices.

“I didn’t realize how much I was watching people’s lips until I got the hearing aids,” she said.

The 75-year-old wanted to hear her grandchildren more clearly.

“My grandson, the very first day that I got these, I was cooking in the front of the house and he was in his room in the back of the house and I could hear him talking to someone,” she said. “He was shocked!”

Vetter Toalson regularly tweaks her patients’ devices to make sure they are picking up the higher frequencies often muddled by a mask.

“The masks, depending on the material, or a face shield (can) affects the frequencies,” she said. “And most times it’s high frequency sounds that help give clarity to speech. … high frequencies (are) lowered when someone wears a mask. So we want to make sure these are all loud enough so we can detect speech at an appropriate level.”

In addition to hearing aids, Vetter Toalson stocks clear masks.

“We have quite a few patients who have asked us for them,” she said. “And they say how much of a difference they notice and how much easier it is to hear because they can see our lips and our face move while we are talking to them.”

Vetter Toalson said there are strategies to help boost clearer communication like asking people to rephrase things or slow down their speech.

“If you are with somebody who has hearing loss, slowing down your speech, rephrasing it, getting their attention before you talk to them (can help),” she said.

Another problem is when people remove their masks, their hearing aids are popping out and they are losing them. One more thing to be mindful of as we follow the safety guidelines of the pandemic.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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