Making the world make sense for those with hearing loss

Researchers offer webinar with helpful tips to ease communication

9 February 2023

Did you know it’s normal to start having a harder time hearing higher-pitched sounds or following a conversation in a noisy room as we age? This age-related hearing loss — presbycusis — usually begins in the early 40s, and is caused by the loss of fine hair cells in the inner ear that transmit messages to the brain. For people struggling with hearing loss, even the most basic communication is difficult.  

Bill Hodgetts, an audiologist and researcher with the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, says that while hearing loss is a normal part of aging, it can be problematic. “Only about one in five people who need a hearing aid is wearing one,” he explains, “and we have indications now that it's leading to more rapid cognitive decline and more rapid aging.” Considering that the World Health Organization estimates that 25 per cent of people over 60 years of age are affected by hearing loss, that’s a significant number of people at risk of social isolation, loneliness, stigma and cognitive decline. “I really agree with a quote from Hellen Keller on this topic,” says Hodgetts: “ ‘Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people.’ ” 

Esther Kim, a speech language therapist and communications disorders researcher in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, is also keenly aware of the challenges associated with communication disorders. Kim’s research program focuses on aphasia, a language disorder due to stroke, brain tumour or injury that leaves people unable to communicate effectively. “It’s estimated that one in every eight Albertans can be impacted by a condition that affects their ability to communicate” says Kim, adding that the high prevalence of hearing loss among older adults means that it often co-exists with other communication disorders such as aphasia. 

Hearing loss has a huge impact on our participation in everyday life, because so much of our daily communication with others is done through speaking and listening. Think of visiting a local business, talking with a clerk at a grocery store, or interacting with a doctor in their office. “If you're just primarily relying on that auditory speech signal and something happens so that you can't hear that anymore, that's going to impact your ability to participate in daily life,” says Kim.  Tammy Hopper, speech-language therapist and researcher, agrees. “This includes not being able to fully hear and understand important pieces of information that would help people navigate any health concerns or health issues that they have and share what they’ve learned with family members,” says Hopper, who is also dean of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. “I would love to see a focus on communication accessibility the same way we focus on physical accessibility,” she adds, noting the use of eyeglasses for visual impairments and curb cutting in municipal streets to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers.    

Thanks to communication disorder researchers, work is underway to provide support to those affected by hearing loss and related communication issues. “In some of my work, we've been looking to educate health-professions offices and businesses to be more communicatively accessible,” says Kim. “There are businesses that have already begun to train their staff to use alternative strategies like gestures, written key words, or pictographs that can help to provide better service to those with communication challenges. The idea is that this is going to help people who have communication disorders like aphasia, but it can also be helpful for people who perhaps have hearing loss.”

On Tuesday, Feb. 14, Hodgetts, Kim and Hopper will host a webinar about hearing loss, providing simple and effective techniques to improve communication with people with hearing loss and other conditions that make communication challenging. The session, Communication, hearing loss and aging: Improving social interactions, is free and open to the public. 

“What I really hope is that people come away from the presentation more aware of the communication difficulties that result from hearing loss and conditions like aphasia, and be able to facilitate communication for people who do have these conditions that affect communication,” says Hopper. 


Attend Communication, hearing loss and aging: Improving social interactions to learn about the effects of age-related hearing loss and age-related conditions such as stroke on communication and ways to communicate in the presence of hearing loss. Attendees will gain a better understanding of the need for a communication-friendly society, and how we can all advocate for it. This webinar is being held Tuesday, Feb. 14 from 12 - 1 p.m. and will include ASL interpretation.