Hearing loss can be devastating - it can also be helped
It's Deaf Awareness Week, and Scope spoke with Action on Hearing Loss about a vital service which helps older people feeling lonely and desperate - a service searching for more funding and volunteers.
Isolation, anxiety and depression are terrible issues for anyone.
However older people are more at risk than the general population, for several reasons.
One major risk factor, which exacerbates all the others and is is more common among the older population, is hearing loss.
Together with deafness and tinnitus, around one in six of us is affected - 300,000 people in Northern Ireland. However, over 40% of people aged 50+ have hearing loss. This rises to 71% for those over 70.
Often dismissed as just a part of getting old, or something that can't be helped, it is linked to loneliness, depression, cognitive decline, and increases the risk of dementia.
But it can be helped. This is Deaf Awareness Week, and Scope spoke with Action on Hearing Loss NI about their In Touch initiative, which supports people aged 55 and over across Northern Ireland who have hearing difficulties and are feeling lonely or isolated.
In Touch trains volunteers, via an accredited programme, before matching them with a service user and organising regular visits.
Funded by the Big Lottery Fund, its aim is to restore confidence among people at a low point, direct them to any other relevant services, and restore their independence before they finish with the scheme.
Mariette Mulvenna is team leader for the project. She said: "Research shows it takes a person 10 years to accept that they have hearing loss and do something about it - and 10 years is quite a delay in response. By that point the loss is often a lot more significant and affects everyday life much more. It can really hit people hard and leave them feeling isolated.
"Volunteers are trained as befrienders and, once they have completed that, they are matched with a person who has hearing loss, and provide regular visits for social outings, for a cup of coffee, or just a visit in their [the supported person's] own home - maybe all they want is a chat.
"It builds up confidence and teaches them how to cope with their hearing loss."
Action on Hearing Loss highlights a number of case studies to illustrate how deeply people can be affected, even to the point of simply never leaving the house.
That happened to one of their befriendees even though she lived next door to her brother.
Her only method of communication became writing down anything and everything she wanted to say. Ultimately, her confidence collapsed.
Action on Hearing Loss was able to help get her back on her feet - even teaching her some basic sign language, which is unusual for people who lose their hearing later in life.
"We did that to reduce the need to write everything down, because writing every bit of communication down is very tiring. Teaching even a few gestures will give her a much improved quality of life."
People who lose their hearing over time face a different set of barriers to those who are born deaf - the latter will learn sign language growing up but, typically, this is not what happens with the former.
Instead, they tend to learn to lip read. Hearing aids are another option but they are not straightforward.
"It's not the same as going to see an optician and get some lenses when your vision is blurring, which can fix everything.
"A person's brain recognises a lot of different sounds but as their hearing deteriorates they won't hear absolutely everything. When you get a hearing aid it takes a while to get used to using it.
"For instance, plastic bags in supermarkets - if you have not heard that sound for quite a long time it can be uncomfortable. It's the same for leaves rustling in the trees."
The issues that come with hearing loss are manifold. When these occur at the same time as other vulnerabilities, especially those leading to isolation - for example, if someone's family has moved away, or they simply have no family - trouble can spiral out of control:
- Mental distress occurs in 28% of post-lingually deaf men and 43% of post-lingually deaf women, compared with 22% and 27% in the general population, according to research.
- The prevalence of depression and/or anxiety is around four times higher for people with hearing loss than amongst the general population.
- There is evidence showing that the risk of dementia is somewhere between two and five times greater for those with hearing loss.
That is why the work of In Touch is so valuable.
Since its inception six years ago, it has supported 128 people. There are currently 33 on the caseload, with more waiting for help. The programme is significantly oversubscribed.
Beyond that, Action on Hearing Loss does not know how many people are out there who would benefit from In Touch.
Hearing loss is a hidden disability - and one which still suffers from stigma.
However, the Census results of 2011 found 574,215 people over 50 in Northern Ireland. Based on that number, 229,686 of them will have hearing loss (40%), and one third of thse (76,562) will feel lonely (per research by Age UK).
In Touch is working to its capacity right now but, quite clearly, there is huge potential demand for the work it does.
Nonetheless, it needs more volunteers - and more funding.
Current financial support ends in September and Action on Hearing Loss is extremely keen to see it continue.
Ms Mulvenna said: "What we don't want to see is this project coming to an end, because it's so valuable and so important to the people we support and if it was to close those people would go right back to being at risk again."
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