Question: Could you give me some practical tips for dealing with hearing loss in the home and in restaurants?—A. S. It hadn’t occurred to me that re-arranging furniture in my home might help me hear better. Can you tell me more? Also about where to sit in places like restaurants.—K. S.
Answer: These are excellent questions. Understanding people in homes and restaurants can be daunting indeed! Let’s look at each of these separately and learn how we can put the odds in our favor in order to hear better and strain less.
I am assuming that you are wearing hearing aids, using assistive listening devices as appropriate and speechreading to supplement what you hear. (Actually, the following tips will help you hear better whether you do that or not.)
As an added benefit, the following coping strategies do not cost anything. They are absolutely free. We just have to put them into practice.
In Our Homes
Houses today are not designed with the needs of hard of hearing people in mind. Therefore we need to rearrange our homes to make them more user friendly to hard of hearing people. Here are three aspects we need to understand and put into practice in our homes in order to converse with a minimum of stress and strain. They are light, distance and noise.
Almost all hard of hearing people speechread (lip reading is the older term) whether they realize it or not. In order to speechread, we need adequate light. We need to rearrange the lighting (or the seating) in our homes so that there is adequate light falling on everyone’s faces but not in their eyes. This means that the traditional table lamps at eye level are out. Ceiling lights are the best as they are out of everyone’s eyes and illuminate our faces. Unfortunately for us, ceiling lights are not in style in our homes today. The second choice is pole lamps with the lights high on the pole.
Another important thing to consider is the light coming in the windows. Yes, we want that light, but no, we don’t want it in our eyes. As a result we mustn’t arrange the living room furniture so that a chair or sofa is in front of the window. Anyone sitting there would be backlit by the outside light. To a person sitting across the room facing the window, that person’s face would be in the shadow and very hard to speechread.
I know a hard of hearing lady that has a Bible study in her home each week. The pastor sits in a chair in front of the window and the rest of the people sit on the sofa and chairs opposite him. It is hard for any of them to speechread him. I pointed out to her that if she arranged the furniture just the opposite and they sat with their backs to the window and the pastor sat facing them, he would have the light on his face and it would not be in their eyes so they could speechread him much easier.
This only works if you are talking with a hearing person. If there are two hard of hearing people, neither one can be backlit or the other one won’t be able to speechread him clearly. The solution is to sit the chairs facing each other with the light coming from the side. That way both their faces are at least half in the light and make for passable speechreading.
Distance is an enemy of hard of hearing people. Unlike people with normal hearing, we need to be close to the speaker in order to hear him. Few people realize just how critical distance is in our ability to understand speech. Let me show you.
If I were to talk right into your ear at a comfortable listening level and then move away from your ear still speaking at exactly the same volume, here is what would happen. At only 2 feet from your ear, my voice would be only one quarter as loud. At 4 feet it would be one sixteenth as loud. At 8 feet it would be one sixty-fourth as loud, and at about 12 feet, the distance across a typical living room, it would be 150 times softer than it was at your ear.
For a person with normal hearing this isn’t a problem. Their dynamic range is much greater than ours. To us, from this distance we hear little or nothing. So instead of having people shouting at us, all we need to do is move the chairs closer together. Instead of the typical seating around the perimeter of the room which means people are sitting far apart, clump the chairs close together and place them facing each other. Just moving the chairs closer together makes hearing so much easier.
Also, it is much easier for us to speechread when the person we are talking to is sitting across from us rather than sitting beside us on a chesterfield. For one thing, it is much easier on the neck. Then, too, the sound is better directed at our ears. Several individual chairs grouped together facing each other make much more sense than a couple of chesterfields set along the walls.
A common enemy of understanding speech is background noise. We want to chat where it is quiet! One hundred years ago, houses were built with doors to each room. Now, we have open architecture and many times the living room, dining room and kitchen are all open to each other. The noise from one area travels freely to another area and we have trouble hearing.
If you can, separate the noisy areas by shutting doors if your have them. Have children play downstairs or outside or in their bedrooms when you have hard of hearing guests in your home.
Turn off the TV, radio, and stereo as this just interferes with our ability to hear speech. The same is true for any other noisemakers in your house such as the dishwasher, washing machine, etc. These chores can wait until after the conversation is over.
If traffic or other outside noise is a problem, shut windows or doors on that side of the house or move to a quieter location in the house.
Another thing is to keep separate conversations in separate rooms. Two groups chatting in the same room make it almost impossible for us to understand much of anything. Move one group to another room and both groups will then be able to chat to their hearts content without interfering with each other.
Restaurants pose a particularly difficult listening situation for us because we have little or no control over that environment. People are talking and laughing, cutlery is clinking, cash registers are clanking, dishes are clattering as the busboys clear/set tables. On top of that there is the ever-present (and annoying) background music. Traffic noise comes in through the doors as patrons come and go.
What can we do to hear better? Here are some things to consider.
If you can, select a quiet restaurant. Some are made deliberately noisy. Others are soft and muted. If you have the choice, select a quiet restaurant in the first place. Scout around and see what there is in your community.
All restaurants are much noisier when they are busy. If possible, choose to dine during the off hours. This sure makes a difference. For example, my friend and I deliberately went to a restaurant around 11:15 AM for lunch. There were only about 6 people in the entire restaurant so conversation was relatively easy. By 11:50 the place was filling up and there were a couple of hundred people milling around. The din was enormous. But by that time we were almost finished and out of there.
Some quiet restaurants not only are muted in sound, but they have mood lighting. Read that as dimly lit! This makes it difficult to speechread. What can you do? If you ask the waiter to turn up the lights, it spoils the ambience for everyone else. However all is not lost. There are several possibilities depending on the specific restaurant. One choice is to choose a table that is along the wall close to a wall light that shines on your table. If it is daylight outside, request a window seat and use the available daylight streaming in the window to speechread by. Perhaps you can get the light turned up if you sit in a corner or in a separate room. It never hurts to ask. If you don’t explain your needs, how will any one be able to help you?
If the restaurant is fancy and uses candles on the tables here are a couple of tricks. First, move the candle(s) to the side of the table so they are not in your direct line of sight with the person opposite you. That way your eyes don’t try to shut down to cut the glare from the candle and hence make the person’s face appear darker than it already is. Second, request that the waiter bring you a couple of more candles and make a row along one side of the table (or on both sides). This additional light will make it much easier to speechread. (Do the same at home for those romantic candlelight dinners.)
Choose the location of your table carefully. Here are some of the places I try to stay away from. Choose a table away from the main door to cut down on the noise of people constantly entering and leaving. Keep away from the cash register and it’s attendant noise. Never sit near a door to the kitchen. That is one noisy place to be. Ditto for the areas where the busboys pile the dirty dishes. If it is a buffet style restaurant, sit well away from the buffet area and its attendant noise.
Some other considerations regarding table location. I like to choose a table along a wall or in a corner. This cuts down the noise coming at me from all directions. A table in the middle of the room gets noise from all directions. If the choice is a booth or a table, take the booth. It is quieter.
Don’t choose a table right under a loudspeaker or the music will drown out your conversations. I look for a table as far away from loudspeakers as possible.
Choose a seat at your table such that the waiter/waitress can’t come up behind you and begin talking. I like to sit so they have to approach me in my line of sight. This makes taking the order so much easier.
Finally, don’t let the hearing members of your party railroad you into taking the table of their choice. You take charge. They won’t think of all of your special hearing needs and why you need to sit where you choose.
These are some of the hearing loss coping strategies I regularly use to make dining/conversing a more enjoyable experience. They will work for you too!