Communicating with Deaf and Hard Of Hearing Seniors

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These five tips show how to communicate with people who have severe hearing loss. The advice is especially useful for young people who tend to mumble their words.

Dear Disability Advisor,

I am a director of recreation at a senior center that offers classes, crafts, exercise, and social events for people in our community.  One of our local high schools has volunteered to supply student volunteers to work as assistants to our regular teachers in working with our senior population.  The biggest problems we seem to have is in helping our teens communicate so that the seniors, most of whom have hearing loss, can understand and hear them. Is there something I can add to our orientation training about communicating with deaf and hard of hearing seniors?


Dear Joyce,

I’m so glad you took the time to ask questions about a really important issue that affects millions of people: Communicating with people with severe hearing loss.  It’s common for adults to accuse teens of mumbling, which immediately puts a strain on any communication between these two groups. While it probably wouldn’t hurt all of us to improve our diction, the reality is that most people have no idea how to communicate effectively with people different from themselves, including those who have trouble hearing or understanding them. I love the idea of including communication tips as part of your orientation. What would really help integrate these tips into whatever else you are teaching them would be to have the students role play some situations where they can practice the techniques you describe to them. Here are five simple, effective suggestions for communicating with people with hearing difficulties:

  1. Begin all communication with a greeting that is visual, physical and spoken. Example: Gently tap the person on the arm, face the person with a smile, and then say: Hello, Matthew. I’m Emmie and I’m here to help you with woodworking today.
  2. Make sure your mouth is clearly visible. Most people who are hard of hearing depend on reading facial expressions and especially lips. Try not to turn away when speaking, cover your mouth with your hands or hold an item in your mouth while talking.
  3. Don’t be embarrassed to use pantomime or hand gestures. Adding body or hand movements can provide important cues to what you are communicating. Example: Hang on to the back of a chair with both hands and move one leg up at a time while saying: “Hang on to the back of the chair with both hands and practice swinging each leg up one at a time.”
  4. Rephrase your statement or question if the person doesn’t understand it the first time. Example: First question: Do you want to participate in our singing class today? Second question: Do you like to sing? Come and joins us in the music room.
  5. Be patient with your voice. It is easy to resort to yelling, especially if you have made repeated unsuccessful attempts to be understood. Even if your words are not understood, your tone of voice, facial expressions and your feelings are apparent when you are shouting or impatient.

Congratulations, Joyce, on having volunteers who want to work with your clientele.  I hope these tips can improve the communication and forge some meaningful relationships for both the young people and the seniors.


Jackie Booth, Ph.D.

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