Senior shares experience struggling with sensory loss during pandemic

By: Kara Szymanski | Shelby - Utica News | Published May 14, 2021

 Josephine Anderson, of Shelby Township, is among those with sensory loss who have always faced an increased risk of feeling isolated, but that has been magnified during the pandemic.

Josephine Anderson, of Shelby Township, is among those with sensory loss who have always faced an increased risk of feeling isolated, but that has been magnified during the pandemic.

Photo provided by Connor Hayes

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SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Imagine not being able to see, hear or move around very well or at all during a world pandemic. This has been the case for many senior-age residents in Shelby Township, Utica and all over the world.

Each of the five senses plays a role in keeping people connected to the world. When the senses begin to weaken, it can become difficult and frightening to navigate an environment that is not designed to accommodate impaired vision, hearing, mobility and more.

During the pandemic, masks, social distancing and being able to listen to the constant changes going on have been of the utmost importance. Some people are unable to do these things their senses have started to waver.

Family members, caregivers and the community as a whole can be mindful of the signs of sensory loss and take proactive steps to ensure people with weakened senses feel embraced and engaged.

According to Home Instead, which provides personalized care, support and education to help aging adults and their families, local aging experts say that 83 percent of older adults live with at least one form of sensory loss. While those with sensory loss have always faced an increased risk of feeling isolated, the pandemic has further reduced their ability to fully connect with the world around them, possibly leading to a diminished quality of life.

Josephine Anderson, of Shelby Township, who will turn 90 in November, started to lose her hearing little by little about five years ago. She is one of many seniors who, during events like the pandemic, face struggles in staying informed and connected.

Changes like everyone having to wear masks make it hard to know what someone is saying, because most people who can’t hear try to read lips.

Sandra Zumbro, daughter of Josephine Anderson, said her mom is very independent and she doesn’t like hearing aids.

“My mom did not like the background noise with her hearing aids. Now she will not use them. She has good days and bad days with her hearing. Sometimes I think she has selective hearing. My mom has trouble following the conversation because she cannot hear everything that is being said. She will answer questions and her answers don’t always make sense. My mom makes the best out of her situation. She has a good sense of humor. My mom now listens to the TV on full blast,” she said.

Zumbro said her mom finds it most helpful in living with sensory loss when people speak very loudly and slowly so that she can get what they are saying, especially with masks.

“It helps my mom hear when people speak slow and loud. My mom dislikes speaking to people with masks on. She knows they are necessary, but it sure makes hearing people difficult. My mom finds it helpful when someone faces her when they are talking. She can read their lips while they speak. My mom appreciates the Home Instead caregivers. She has really made a connection with them. It is easy for her to communicate with them,” she said.        

Stephanie Aldridge, a home care consultant, said she has personally had to make changes when working with those who have sensory loss.

“It is hard communicating with people with sensory loss. I speak louder when people have hearing loss. The masks make it extremely difficult to communicate with someone who is hard of hearing. I wear a mask when I am in my clients’ homes. My clients, which are all seniors, have a difficult time reading the Home Instead paperwork. I try to show them a list of services, but they sometimes cannot read it because the print is too small.”

Difficulties with sensory loss can make seniors feel isolated and disconnected from the world even more so during a pandemic.

Lakelyn Hogan, a gerontologist and caregiver advocate at Home Instead Inc., said that over the last year, people have grown increasingly more aware of the negative effects of social isolation.

“Older adults living with limited or diminished senses are faced with the added stress and difficulties brought on by prolonged isolation from their loved ones. And it’s especially important to consider their needs, as they may have an especially difficult time staying connected,” she said.

One thing Home Instead said people can do is prioritize thoughtful connection. Everyone can play a role in ensuring the aging population feels supported and connected during these times. Some tips you can do are:

• Contact older loved ones or neighbors regularly and create meaningful interactions to ensure they feel valued.

• During phone calls, be sure to speak up and enunciate words clearly.

• When possible, visit in-person from a socially safe distance.

• Consider using a clear mask to help those with hearing loss read lips.

Another thing people can do is have empathy. By putting themselves in another’s shoes, they can help create a more inclusive and aging-friendly world.  

Hogan said people can find opportunities to lead with empathy in everyday situations.

“For example, if you’re in line at the grocery store and an older adult in front of you is having a hard time grabbing their credit card from their wallet, instead of getting frustrated, take a deep breath and remember that they may not have the same sensitivity in their fingers as you do,” she said.

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