February 01, 2021

How can I hear others better when everyone wears a mask?

Q: My husband struggled to hear adequately before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now his problems are significantly worse with masks and distancing. What can he do to improve his hearing issues?

A: Changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic have caused major new challenges for people who are hard of hearing or deaf — which is about 40% of those in their 60s, and a greater percentage of people 70 and older. Face masks muffle sound, and cloth face masks make it impossible to read lips or see full facial expressions. Social distancing guidelines have doubled or tripled the usual distance for conversations. Online chats for work or socializing may have poor sound quality. Further, face mask ear loops can get tangled with hearing aids.

To navigate these challenges, it helps to be proactive, whether dealing with a grocery store clerk, a doctor or friends. Let others know your hearing is compromised before engaging in conversation. Talk with an audiologist about adding a feature to hearing aids that amplifies voices muffled by face masks. Always directly face the person you're conversing with, at a safe distance. Ask friends and loved ones to consider buying either masks with clear coverings over the mouth or face shields, which allow for lip reading and seeing facial expressions. Masks with ties or straps around the back of the head can help reduce entanglement with hearing aids.

In online or phone settings, reduce background noise — such as a dishwasher, a TV or fans — and close doors to muffle sound from adjacent rooms. Noise-canceling headphones designed for online conversations also can help. Ask the person on the other side of the conversation to reduce background noise as well....