Sept 2020 North County Public Radio with Amy Feiereisel

We’ve all had an experience like this during the pandemic: you’re out with a mask on, you try to say something, and other people don’t understand you. It’s frustrating, and it’s even harder for the hearing impaired.

Audiologist Karen Wolff sees patients from all over the Adirondacks at her hearing and tinnitus centre in Lake Placid. Her office was closed from March until May, but her patients still had needs. 

"We’ve been helping folks that really need to be able to communicate more then ever. If their hearing aids were broken [or] not working well...we’ve been doing a lot of emergency services."

Wolff is seeing one patient at a time now in her office. She’s also doing telehealth sessions, and offering curbside services, like programming hearing aids. She spoke with Amy Feiereisel about how her work and her patients have been impacted by the coronavirus – starting with masks.

KAREN WOLFF: With masks my patients have a really hard time. Folks that say, ‘Oh, I don’t read lips’ but, they really do. You get so much information watching people’s faces and that cue is now gone. People that were getting by now are realising that, ‘Boy I really do have a hearing loss’. Folks have been calling in quite a bit to have a hearing test to get a baseline of where they are really at.

AMY FEIEREISEL: So, the pandemic is really affecting people with hearing issues?

 WOLFF: It means that they are even more cut off from families, loved ones, strangers, then they had been before. It can be very isolating. It can get frustrating for everyone because when you have to repeat yourself, three to four times, it can be difficult. Out in the real world, it is the masks that do the same sort of thing. People just can’t use those visual cues to help compensate for what they’re missing, auditorily.

Karen WolffFEIEREISEL: So they’re missing the lip reading but, they’re also missing sound, right?

WOLFF: The mask can decrease the volume of somebody's voice by something like 4 to 10 decibals.  Oftentimes, I wear a mask that has a clear vinyl panel around the mouth, so that people can see my lips. Unfortunately, I also find that I’m straining my voice because my voice gets even more in that mask then in a surgical mask. I just recently got a microphone to amplify my voice which I think is going to help quite a bit.

FEIEREISEL: Ok, what can be done to help those who are hard of hearing in this time?

Karen WWOLFF: So, a few things! With masks on do speak a little bit louder; speak slower for the patient; make sure you get the persons attention before you start speaking. If they know the subject that you’re talking about it is so much easier. Then if you can tell that they’re not understanding or if they say 'what?', rather than saying it the exact same way, rephrase the sentence.

 So for instance at home, if you come in and the TV’s on, you say ‘Hey, let’s get steak tonight’. Steak has a lot of consonants. People may not know what that means. Rather then doing that, keep their attention, say ‘Hey, lets talk about dinner tonight’. Now at least we’re on the subject of food. Say, ‘I feel like meat. How about we get a steak?’. Then you have dinner, meat and then steak, which makes so much more sense.

FEIEREISEL: And what has been the most challenging part of your work for these last few months?

KAREN WOLFF: Challenging has been being cut off from my patients for that longer period of time because I know how much they rely on their hearing aids. Now, with coming back and seeing folks I know that some folks are a little wary about coming into the office.

So, trying to do as much as I can remotely. I do telehealth sessions, but sometimes folks are not really computer savvy or smart phone savvy so that doesn’t always work. Now, that we’re back open I have been very busy trying to keep up with all the things that they’ve put off for a while. I’ve even programmed hearing aids from the driveway. I had somebody pull up outside the office and my computer could reach to their car wirelessly and I reprogrammed their hearing aids that way. They didn’t even have to get out of the car.

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