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Coronavirus Pandemic Leaves Some Out of the Conversation
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Karen Bossick has perfected the rodeo queen wave since the pandemic started as a way to acknowledge people while not being able to talk to them.
 
 
Sunday, March 7, 2021
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

I hate having to ask you to take your face mask off.

I applaud that you’re following health guidelines to keep yourself and others safe. But, dang, I can’t tell what you’re saying when that piece of cloth is covering your lips.

St. Luke’s this week acknowledged the toll that the coronavirus pandemic has taken on 50 million hearing-impaired Americans in recognition of World Hearing Day. Not only are they unable to read lips and facial expressions, but they’re finding it harder to hear others because of physical distancing.

And Zoom and other types of communication technology we’ve relied on for the past 12 months is usually not closed-captioned.

Those who were already isolated have become more isolated due to the virus.

“People are just feeling like they can’t accomplish the things that they used to be able to accomplish,” said Dr. Kate Savage, an audiologist with Idaho Elks Hearing and Balance Center in Boise. “And their hearing loss is becoming a lot more apparent to them.”

I can certainly relate to what these people are experiencing. I’ve been trying to fit into the hearing world all my life only to find myself more isolated than ever as face masks take away my ability to decipher what people are saying.

It’s like returning to the Dark Ages as I recall the frightening world of my youth where I could see people moving their mouths but didn’t know what they were saying. Only this is more frustrating because I’ve had a taste of being able to engage with people, and I don’t like losing it.

I have a caption phone that utilizes robots to translate callers’ words into text. But I could not use it for three weeks after shelter-at-home orders began taking effect, presumably because everyone was trying to use their caption phones to call family and friends.

It began to come back slowly. But, even now, I find myself guessing at what people are saying because the caption is not up to snuff.

I never used to watch TV news but turned to it during the pandemic only to find it was nearly impossible. I use captions, or subtitles, to watch TV. But everyone was talking via their cellphones and their faces were blurry and distorted, their microphones apparently so poor that the caption was marginal.

The absolute worst was trying to watch the Idaho governor’s press conferences as he broadcast in dark quarters physically distanced from the camera with sound that apparently was so bad the caption didn’t compute.

And even now reporters are still wearing facemasks as they speak to the camera, often muting what they’re saying.

The pandemic instantly squelched many of the day-to-day tasks I took for granted, as well. I quickly found I couldn’t make a transaction with an unseen bank teller using speakers in the drive-through. I couldn’t order takeout from restaurants like McDonald’s, which were closed to in-person ordering.

Picking up prescriptions became problematic when I faced a sign that told me to “Call when you arrive.” Trying to order at coffee shops was frustrating with everyone masked, but I could nod yes and no when they looked like they were asking me something and hope I got what I asked for.

The lifesaver for me was cross-country skiing and hiking where only about half the people wore masks and I could greet and catch up with friends. But, even then, trying to take a class was problematic when the teacher would not remove his mask, even though outdoors.

I relish the opportunity Sun Valley Resort has provided for us to downhill ski, but I find myself lowering my eyes as I walk to and from the lift lines because I’m afraid someone might want to strike up a conversation and that they will think me rude for not responding.

I’ve learned to keep magnifying glasses and even binoculars handy to enlarge tiny speakers on Zoom conversations, which are often out of focus, pixelated and too distorted to read lips. And, then there are the Livestream programs where the speakers wear facemasks, even though they may be the only one in the room.

Attending various tours has become reason for an hour-long nap on my feet, what with tour guides speaking behind face masks.  With people staying at arm’s length, I’ve had to resist going to places of business to set up interviews like I used to. And I sweat it when I do go out on an interview, wondering if I can kindly persuade someone to drop their mask while we chat outside.

I’ve put a lot of stories on the shelf simply because the logistics are too scary.

This past week I went to a doctor’s appointment that I had put off for a year, only to find myself wondering what the nurses were saying behind their masks. One wheeled in a TV with a sign language interpreter on the screen. But I am not fluent in American Sign Language, having attended a deaf school where they spent hours teaching us speech and lip reading so we could fit into “the real world.”

The last time I even had an opportunity to use ASL was 22 years ago before I moved here so I understood the signer about as well as a middle school student in their second year of German might understand Prime Minister Angela Merkel.

I’ve got a physical therapy appointment coming up and I wonder: Do I risk total frustration again? I will take a clear face shield in hopes the therapist will use it. But they’re not accepted everywhere.

Of course, I’m not alone. Many of my friends whose hearing is keen enough they can hear a pin drop have told me they’re having trouble understanding the mumbling through face masks. And a therapist told me that she needs to be able to see people’s facial expressions to work with them the way she needs to.

“We rely so much on our visual field and what we pick up from people’s facial expressions,” said Savage. “As a provider I have a hard time reading if somebody is more stern or happier or sad behind the mask. And that’s really important for me as a provider to know how they’re feeling.”

The silver lining is that all this face mask wearing has shown some people that they have some degree of hearing loss, and some of those have been fitted for hearing aids. Idaho Elks Hearing and Balance Center, which has been around 40 years, has set records for hearing aid consultations.

There were a couple months they saw more than 200 people per month needing aids, up from an average of 130 per month.

“The main complaints I’m seeing are, ‘I can’t understand the grocery clerk anymore because she’s wearing a mask,’ or ‘I can’t understand the bank clerk because there’s a plastic shield in between us,” said Dr. April Ward, director of the center.

Bluetooth, now built into some hearing aids, allows wearers to stream audio directly from their iPad or smartphone to the hearing aids, enabling people to hear better on Zoom meetings, said Ward. Some people have smartphones with a dictation app that will type out what they say. It can also help to move to a quieter place and even write things down for some people.

Savage said it’s important to be considerate of those who are having trouble understanding what others are saying.

“People get frustrated quickly when someone can’t understand them. And that is a very heartbreaking thing for me to hear,” she said.

It’s important to treat hearing loss early, added Savage, as research shows a very strong correlation between even mild hearing loss and dementia.

“When you’re have hearing loss, you’re struggling so much to hear and understand what people are saying. It stresses and puts more effort on your brain to try to understand,” she said.

Personally, I’ve found that I actually like using masks for some things. They keep my face warm when I’m biking on a cold fall day. They block sunburn on hot summer days. And I’ve occasionally used one as a mini-humidifier when my nose dries out.

But I went into a tailspin the other day when Dr. Fauci said we might have to wear masks into 2022. After spending a lifetime learning how to engage with people, I want more than anything to rejoin  society. And I can’t wait until the face masks begin coming off.

DID YOU KNOW?

The brain will remap itself, becoming more visually focused when someone has hearing loss. Studies have shown that our brain becomes more visually focused and we compensate with our eyes to seek out what we’re missing by reading facial cues, says Dr. Kate Savage.

When we cannot read facial cues, as has been the case during the pandemic, the hearing loss becomes extremely more apparent to the patient.

“And that's what I'm seeing, is that patients are coming a little bit sooner because their brains strategy to compensate is not able to fully work like it used to, because we're not able to read lips any longer with masks,” she said.

 

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