If you knew you weren’t hearing everything you should be, would you do something about it? Surprisingly, many people don’t: Only 30% of seniors over 70 who would benefit from a hearing aid have used one, according to the National Institute of Health. Difficulty hearing can make it hard for seniors to communicate, increasing feelings of isolation, loneliness, and irritability.
Luckily, there are different types of hearing aids and devices available for seniors struggling with hearing loss. Read below to learn about different devices and treatment options for common types of hearing loss in elderly individuals.
Hearing aid technology has advanced significantly in recent decades. The introduction of digital technology in particular has allowed for complex sound filtering and selective sound amplification.
The basic idea behind a hearing aid has remained roughly the same, though. A hearing aid is an electronic, battery-operated device that amplifies certain sounds that a person has trouble detecting naturally. Hearing aids require a prescription from a doctor or audiologist, and they must be professionally fitted to ensure proper function.
Hearing aid devices for the elderly are either digital or analog. According to the Mayo Clinic, almost all new hearing aids are digital. Digital hearing aids feature a computer chip to process sounds and automatically adjust the internal settings to differentiate between speech and noise.
Analog hearing aids have a specific frequency response that you can determine by taking an audiogram test. The device manufacturer predetermines the settings of these hearing aids, which means customization options are limited.
Seniors with mild hearing loss may prefer a hearing aid with a lower profile, i.e. one that rests inside the ear and is harder to see with the naked eye. The trade-off is that smaller hearing aids may lack the power to significantly improve hearing in seniors with more severe hearing loss. Hearing aids that rest fully inside the ear also tend to be more susceptible to earwax clogging than other styles.
These are the three most discrete styles of hearing aid that seniors with mild hearing loss should consider:
Completely-in-the-canal (CIC). This style of hearing aid is molded to fit entirely inside the ear canal. It improves mild to moderate hearing loss, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In-the-canal (ITC). This style is custom-molded to fit partly in the ear canal and can improve mild to moderate hearing loss in adults.
In-the-ear (ITE). This type of hearing aid comes in two styles. They can be either full-shell, and fill most of the bowl-shaped area of the outer ear; or half-shell, and fill only the lower part of the ear. The Mayo Clinic claims that both options are helpful for people with mild-to-severe hearing loss.
Seniors with severe hearing loss will most likely be prescribed hearing aids that rest on the exterior of the ear. External hearing aids tend to offer more amplification, and they often have features that in-ear styles lack, such as built-in volume controls and directional microphones.
Seniors with severe hearing loss should consider behind-the-ear, receiver-in-canal or receiver-in-the-ear, and open-fit styles:
Behind-the-ear (BTE). This style of hearing aid rests behind the ear and has a small tube that hooks over the top and connects to an earmold, which is custom-fit to the ear canal. The Mayo Clinic recommends this style for almost any type of hearing loss.
Receiver-in-canal (RIC) and receiver-in-the-ear (RITE). These styles are similar to a BTE, except instead of tubing, they feature a tiny wire that connects to the speaker and receiver.
Open-fit. This style is a variation of a BTE or RIC hearing aid that features an open dome in the ear. By keeping the ear canal open, an open-fit hearing aid allows for low-frequency sounds to naturally enter the ear while amplifying high-frequency sounds through the device. The Mayo Clinic recommends this style for people with mild to moderate high-frequency hearing loss and decent low-frequency hearing.
A telecoil, or T-coil, is an optional copper wire that allows hearing aids to receive wireless signals directly. Many public buildings with intercoms use inductive loop systems or hearing loops to broadcast public announcements directly to hearing aids with T-coils.
Once within the loop and with their T-coil setting activated, users can hear any broadcast on the building’s audio system. Hearing loops can be found in many churches, lecture halls, movie theaters, and concert venues.
Before choosing hearing aids for seniors, consult with your doctor or audiologist to find the right style for you. In many cases, a senior may only need a single hearing aid to improve hearing in a particular ear. Your doctor may have recommendations, and an audiologist should have several. And, the audiologist should be able to order the device that best fits your needs.
While it does cover hearing tests and other hearing services, Medicare does not cover hearing aids. Many private health care plans will pay for hearing tests or hearing aid evaluations, and some may even cover your hearing aid. Meanwhile, Medicaid may cover hearing aids for qualifying seniors depending on specific circumstances.
In addition to prescription hearing aids, seniors have access to several different products and procedures that can help restore hearing function. Some seniors may require additional devices to get the most out of their hearing aid, while others may require surgery to help correct extensive hearing loss.
Cochlear implants are an excellent option for seniors with severe or profound hearing loss. These small electronic devices are surgically implanted onto the back of the head to stimulate the nerve that controls hearing. The external part of the implant sits behind the ear and picks up sounds with a microphone. The sounds are then processed and transmitted to the internal part of the implant to create a sensation of sound.
While they cannot necessarily return lost hearing to previous levels, cochlear implants can improve the ability to understand speech, with proper rehabilitation and training from licensed professionals. According to John Hopkins Medicine, cochlear implant surgery is a safe and well-tolerated procedure. Seniors who think they might benefit from a cochlear implant should contact their doctor to discuss this and other treatment options for hearing loss.
Cochlear implants can cost between $30,000 and $50,000 if you pay out-of-pocket. Unlike external hearing aids, this option can often be substantially covered in cost by Medicare – up to 80%. Check the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Service’s National Coverage Determination for cochlear implants to see if you are eligible.
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Several over-the-counter products can benefit seniors with mild hearing loss. Some options work in tandem with hearing aids, while others are for those who don’t have them. For seniors who are hard of hearing or deaf, assistance devices that can benefit them include:
Otherwise known as a personal sound amplification product (PSAP), hearing amplifiers are one variety of over-the-counter hearing loss products. These devices are not FDA-approved like a hearing aid, and they do not require an audiogram. While not meant to be used by people with severe hearing loss, they can assist hard-of-hearing seniors with everyday tasks like watching television, or conversing in a loud restaurant.
A wide range of these devices offer features often found in hearing aids, such as Bluetooth connectivity and directional microphones. Popular hearing amplifiers include:
Seniors with hearing loss can also benefit from the vast array of personal assistive listening devices that are currently available. Common personal assistive listening devices include:
Hearing loss that goes untreated can get worse over time, which is why it is essential to see a doctor if you or your loved one has had a noticeable change in hearing. If diagnosed early, treatment such as hearing aids, medicine, and surgery can help restore function to a more manageable level.
Review A Place for Mom’s helpful attached checklist to learn if you or your loved one would benefit from a hearing aid or similar device. If you answer “yes” to three or more of the following questions, you could have a hearing problem and need to have your hearing checked by a doctor.
If you believe that you or your loved one needs more assistance than just a hearing aid, A Place for Mom’s expert Senior Living Advisors can help explore senior living options in your area.
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.Paying for hearing aids.
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Cochlear implantation.
Medicare Coverage Database.Cochlear implantation. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Boys Town National Research Hospital. Digital Hearing Aid Technology. Knowledge Center.
Janssen, T. (2021, July 21). Assistive listening devices. Hearing Directory.
Johns Hopkins Medicine.Cochlear Implant surgery.
Mayo Clinic. (2020, October 21). Hearing aids: how to choose the right one.
National Association of the Deaf.Assistive listening systems and Devices.
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. (2021, March 25). Quick statistics about hearing.
Zeng, F.G. (2016, September). Why does Medicare cover cochlear implants but not hearing aids?The Hearing Journal.