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How to Make the Holidays More Hearing-Friendly

Family dinner during the holidays

I love the five weeks that begin with Thanksgiving and end with New Year’s, but a part of me also thinks, “Bah, humbug.”

That’s the part that knows I’ll struggle to follow conversations at family dinners, holiday parties, concerts and pageants. It’s also the part of me that will want to leave early, or maybe even just stay home.

If you feel the same way, here are a few tips and strategies for making the holidays more hearing-friendly. Some of them involve technology, but most are purely listening strategies. Listening is an important part of hearing, and you can train yourself to listen better.

Focus on one speaker at a time. If it’s a small party, a dinner party with friends, ask that people talk one at a time. Most will cheerfully agree, and then soon forget — we love to interrupt each other. Keep reminding them. It gets easier. One person at a time eventually becomes a kind of natural rhythm in conversation.

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If it’s a larger group, focus your conversation on one person. It may take several tries to find the one person whose voice is at a pitch you can hear, who doesn’t have a mustache or beard, thin lips or a strong accent, who doesn’t mumble. But any one person is easier to follow than two or three.

Practice mindful listening. Watch the impulse to say “What?” or “Huh?” Think before you respond. What’s the context of the conversation? What parts of the sentence did you get? Is there a logical missing word? We always tell people with hearing loss not to pretend they’ve heard, and not to guess. But guessing can be an effective strategy for getting someone to repeat things in a way that makes the whole sentence comprehensible. Instead of simply saying “what?” ask instead about something specific, like “Did you say that Ann or Nan was at the hospital with Carol? I didn’t get the name.”

Be specific about what you missed. Jaclyn Spitzer, director of audiology and speech-language pathology at Columbia University Medical School, spoke to our Hearing Loss Association of America chapter this past week about facilitating conversation. “When you say ‘Huh?’ or ‘What did you say?’ the speaker doesn’t even know where to start,” she said. They’re left wondering, “Was I effectively getting information across for any part of this conversation? Or do I just have to give you that last sentence?”

Bring a notebook and pen and ask someone to fill in key words — “Who are we talking about?” “What country was that?” “Where did he say that happened?” — when you get lost.

Seat yourself strategically. That is, not near the kitchen or a noisy child or next to the blowhard who never stops talking. In a restaurant, make sure you’re nowhere near the busing station. There’s nothing like the clatter of cutlery and plates to drown out conversation.

Technology is your friend. If you have assistive listening devices, use them. If you have an FM system or a Roger system, ask several people to wear the lapel mikes. Place the Roger pen, in its stand, in the middle of the table. If you have an FM system, especially one that allows multiple conversations, use it. Something as simple as a Pocket Talker can help you be part of the conversation.

Wear your hearing aidsIf they make everything loud, turn down the volume. Even a little bit of hearing will help you with speech reading.

Adapt everyday technology. Do you have Siri on your smartphone or Dragon Dictation? These are both voice recognition systems. Ask someone to repeat the key idea of a conversation into your phone. The text may be garbled, especially if it’s noisy, but it may be enough to allow you to understand what you missed.

Give yourself a break. Allow yourself to tune out or even to leave the room for a few minutes if things get overwhelming.

Give yourself a psychological break. If you miss a word, or a sentence, or even the gist of the conversation, examine your reaction. Do you panic? Get depressed or angry? None of these reactions is going to improve things. Stay calm and focused, and move on.

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If all else fails, admit to yourself and others that it’s just too hard to hear. Say it with a friendly shrug and a smile, especially if they’ve been trying. Have a glass of wine, a second dessert. Play with the baby. Take the dog out for a walk. Invite someone to move over to the couch with you and have a one-on-one conversation.

And don’t forget to look around at the people the room and be grateful for those you love — or even  like. And if you realize that you actually don’t like any of them, and that they haven’t made any effort to include you in the conversation, maybe it’s not worth your effort. Make your polite excuses and leave — just be sure you’re leaving because you don’t  want to hear them. Not just because you can’t.

Photo: Middelveld/iStock

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