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Assistive Devices Offer Help for Hearing Loss

Used alone or with hearing aids, assistive devices improve quality of life

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by Carolyn Musket

Assistive Devices: Alternatives to Hearing Aids
Personal hearing aids are often the only remedial option considered by seniors with hearing loss, and many seniors choose not to wear them.

Seniors with hearing loss can get help improving communication and independent functioning through assistive devices (also known as hearing assistive technology).

A new generation of assistive devices goes beyond hearing aids to enable even the most severely hearing-impaired people to function in many listening situations.

Many assistive devices can be used alone or to supplement hearing aid use in specific places. For example, hearing aid performance often breaks down in noisy conditions, and fails to amplify speech that is some distance away.

How Do Assistive Devices Work?
Assistive devices amplify and clarify sound.

  • At the most basic level, assistive devices for home use alert hearing-impaired individuals to smoke detectors, doorbells, and ringing of telephones and alarm clocks.
  • On a broader scale, large-area assistive devices can be placed in auditoriums, theaters and churches to transmit sounds to hearing-impaired individuals through headsets or electro-magnetic receivers inside hearing aids (those equipped with telecoils, also known as Audio Frequency Induction Loops).
  • Among the most useful assistive devices are ones that can be used to amplify and clarify sounds people encounter in everyday living, such as radio or television, telephone calls, and ordinary conversations.

How Assistive Devices Can Be Used
In many cases, seniors can use one or more of these assistive devices with their existing hearing aid or aids.

  • Whether connected to a telecoil-equipped hearing aid or working alone, personal amplifiers such as the Pocketalker Pro and Pocketalker Ultra by Williams Sound are compact enough to be discreet and portable, but powerful enough to amplify almost any hearing scenario including one-on-one, small group and telephone conversations, and listening to the television. These battery-operated devices also diminish background noises and enable the user to adjust them to each listening situation.

    Marie Maddry, 82, of Richardson, Texas, says her hearing is severely impaired, and she considers her Pocketalker Ultra personal amplifier a booster to her two hearing aids, particularly in group settings.

    “It gives me more confidence and I don't feel quite as isolated,” Maddry says.

  • Like Maddry, 83-year-old James Evans of Plano, Texas, has relied on traditional hearing aids for many years, and credits his personal amplifier assistive device with allowing him to hear everyone at large family gatherings -- something that was previously very difficult.

    Evans also relies on several other advanced assistive devices in his home, including an amplified telephone and a modified alarm clock that provides large digital numbers, a very loud alarm, and a bed shaker that slips under the mattress to create a noticeable vibration at the specified alarm time.

    One of Evans’ favorite assistive devices is the DirectEar infrared television assistive listening system. “It provides really great clarity,” Evans says. “Much better than with hearing aids alone.”

  • Aurora L. Holloway, 69, of Sun City, Texas, was equally enthusiastic about her CapTel (captioned telephone), which enables her to both hear and read telephone conversations. CapTel assistive devices have an amplified handset and real-time written captions that appear in a display window on the phone.

    Holloway has good reason to be enthused. She lost her hearing following a bout of mumps at age 17, and she wasn’t able to use the phone at all until she got her CapTel phone at the age of 68. “It’s opened up a new world for me,” Holloway says. “I just love to talk on the phone!”

    In Texas alone, more than 900 CapTel phones are now in use. Although the phones can be purchased by consumers, many states have telephone equipment distribution programs that provide CapTel phones to qualified individuals. (For state program information, see "More About Assistive Devices" on this page).

Whether it’s using the phone, watching television, or just carrying on an everyday conversation, hearing should not be frustrating or challenging. Assistive devices like Pocketalkers and CapTel phones are designed to improve difficult listening situations and, ultimately, enrich the overall quality of life for hearing-impaired seniors.

Users of Assistive Devices Encourage Others
Seniors who are already experiencing the benefits of the latest assistive devices are often the first to encourage their hearing-impaired friends and family to find out how assistive devices can help them.

“To anyone with a [hearing] problem, I would say ‘go for it,’” says Marie Maddry. “They have nothing to lose and possibly much to gain.”

Carolyn Musket is the director of the Assistive Devices Center at the Callier Center for Communication Disorders, University of Texas at Dallas. Carolyn can be reached via e-mail at cmusket@utdallas.edu.

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