Dual Sensory Loss Among Older Persons: A Growing Problem

by Audrey Demmitt, R.N., VisionAware Peer Advisor

A growing number of seniors are aging with a combination of vision loss and hearing loss. This is known as dual sensory loss, and it can have a significant impact on a person’s daily function and quality of life. In the older population, vision and hearing loss are usually due to age-related conditions that are progressive. This means the older you are, the more likely you are to have a combined sensory loss. It is difficult to estimate how many seniors have significant dual sensory loss because there are varying degrees and definitions, and it often goes undetected and undiagnosed. Many older adults, their caregivers, and family members dismiss vision and hearing changes as a normal part of aging, but dual sensory loss can be treated. Getting the proper help for an older person with dual sensory loss begins with awareness.

Photo of Man Using an Assistive Listening Device.

Dual Sensory Loss Is a Unique Experience

As you can imagine, dual sensory loss is a unique experience different and perhaps greater than a single sensory loss. Some seniors may be adjusting to vision loss or hearing loss alone with the help of adaptations they have learned, but a combined loss of vision and hearing will present a new level of challenge. It can compound the difficulties an older adult may have with:

  • Communication—understanding speech and following a conversation, seeing facial expressions and hearing nuanced messages, listening to TV, radio, or other talking products, using the phone, hearing alarms or the doorbell, and accessing information both written and auditory forms
  • Activities of Daily Living—personal care, managing medications, shopping, cooking, using timers, reading mail, and paying bills
  • Socialization—attending social events, worship services, visiting friends, participating in the arts and other entertainments, and lack of transportation
  • Physical Activity and Safety—safely walking, getting to places/activities to exercise or enjoy hobbies, personal safety in the community, and reading traffic
  • Independence and Well-Being—may become more fearful and anxious, unable to care for self in their own home, increased loneliness with isolation, and diminished quality of life

Left untreated, dual sensory loss can cause increased risk for falls, isolation, depression, anxiety, and dependence on others. These seniors need specialized rehabilitation services and support, and the sensory losses need to be treated in tandem with coordinated services for both.

Tips to Improve Communication with Individuals Experiencing Dual Sensory Loss

  • Try to talk in a quiet place with good lighting and move away from background noise (a stereo, open window, competing conversations, etc.).
  • Before speaking, get the person’s attention by looking at them or gently touching their hand, arm, or shoulder. Make sure they know who you are.
  • Speak slowly and clearly at a moderate rate and don’t shout. Hearing loss affects high-range sounds first, so try to speak in low tones.
  • Sit close to the person and make sure your face and mouth are visible for speech/lip reading.
  • Use helpful facial expressions and gestures such as pointing to help get your message across.
  • Rephrase if your message is misunderstood.
  • Restate and summarize the important points to confirm understanding.
  • Be patient and positive, allowing the person extra time to understand what is said.
  • Use the clock method to give directions and location of objects.
  • When in doubt, ask the person how to improve communication with him/her.

Finding Help and Resources

If you are struggling with vision and hearing loss, have a loved one who may be, or are working with older individuals with dual sensory loss, learn what can be done about this challenging condition.

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