Whatcom County groups encourage seniors to overcome their hearing loss - Prime Time - bellinghamherald.com Do you hear what I hear? For many people over the age of 65, the answer to that question is "no." Hearing loss is a becoming less of a silent problem as awareness grows and more people are diagnosed. Experts say it's hard to determine whether people suffer from hearing loss more than before, or whether more people are now seeking help. Either way, the reality is that one of six people nationwide are hard of hearing, including 17 percent of Bellingham residents, according to census models. Charlene MacKenzie, a leader of the Hearing Loss Association of Whatcom County, lost her hearing as a young adult and now devotes her time to helping others with hearing loss to live their lives as fully as possible. The association provides educational programs, support and resources for people with hearing loss. Programs range from how to manage hearing loss from a clinical aspect, such as learning about cochlear implants, to technical skills such as using assistive devices and selecting hearing aids, to the social and emotional impact that hearing loss can have on the individual and loved ones. "It's a disability," MacKenzie says "But the 'dis' in 'disability' is a very small part of the word. Just because we have hearing loss doesn't mean we can't have fulfilling lives with the right devices and the skills to use them." The Whatcom County chapter is the largest in the state, with more than 80 members and a steady stream of visitors at each monthly meeting. MacKenzie says the group's goal is to help people integrate with society, not isolate themselves. That's why, for example, their monthly meetings use an amplification system, captioning services and visual aids such as PowerPoint. MacKenzie's hearing loss was the side effect of a medication when she was 20. She became profoundly deaf, but has since received a cochlear implant and uses hearing aids. As a person with hearing loss, she says the biggest problem is "speech discrimination," meaning how to discern language from other noises. "Knowing how to use your hearing aid and knowing what to listen for if you haven't heard for a while is challenging," she says. "Retraining your brain to recognize those sounds is a big part of it." MacKenzie warns that advertisements can lead people to believe that hearing aids are all the same. She says it's important to try several brands from a licensed audiologist, who can help select an appropriate device. HEARING LOSS AND DEMENTIA Seeing an audiologist can also help prevent misdiagnosis, which can be common with older people because the symptoms of hearing loss are similar to dementia. In fact, recent articles linking hearing loss to dementia have triggered research projects at Western Washington University. Rieko Darling, the audiology clinic director at WWU and an associate professor specializing in geriatric audiology, is conducting research to see if there is a connection between hearing loss and dementia, and what can be done if someone has both conditions. "We don't believe there is a direct one-to-one relationship," Darling says. "Some literature suggests hearing loss can cause dementia, and we don't want people to think that is necessarily the case. But there may be some connections." A possible connection is that people who start to lose their hearing often start to isolate themselves, because communicating with others becomes more difficult. Darling says it may be that when people have less access to relationships and are less stimulated, they can undergo cognitive change. For the research at Western, people with early stages of memory loss who also have hearing loss are given the chance to use hearing devices to see if they benefit from them. "Our hope is to see if hearing loss was part of their situation, we could find ways to take the hearing loss factor out of it, and help them enjoy the relationships a little bit longer," Darling says. HELP AT BELLINGHAM PROGRAM People with hearing loss don't have to be part of a study at Western to obtain help with hearing devices. The Hearing, Speech & Deafness Center serves people in 13 Western Washington counties, and has an office in Bellingham where people who are deaf or hard of hearing can benefit from clinical services, community programs and help with technology. Joel Bergsbaken, program coordinator, says the center gives people a chance to try different technologies before applying for assistance to obtain a device. With funding from the state, the center provides devices on a sliding-fee scale. Bergsbaken says that's what often gets people in the door, but the center also offers peer counseling, educational programs, including speech reading and sign language, and advocacy, such as when deaf or hard-of-hearing people can't get an employer or government agency to accommodate them. "Many people don't see how being more accessible to the hard of hearing can be a benefit to them," he says. Bergsbaken and his staff are also concerned about reports of hearing loss leading to dementia, and are trying to educate their clients and the public about the differences. "Isolation certainly can make things get worse," he says, "but we don't want people to buy hearing aids out of fear they will get dementia. We want them to seek help because they see where the challenges are and want to overcome those challenges." Having worked with the deaf and hard of hearing his whole career, Bergsbaken tries to help people focus on the gains they can receive from their hearing loss. "When your hearing is not reliable, you rely on your vision," he says. "They are more perceptive about visual cues and can tell when people aren't being genuine or if their moods or disposition change." Because deaf and hard-of-hearing people can't benefit from overhearing information in the constant "buzz" around them, they can feel disconnected if they aren't aware of the same things as their friends and family. Bergsbaken says the benefit of that situation is that people can become more deliberate in the knowledge they seek out. "Hearing loss can enhance lives as well as make things more difficult," he says. "It has things that are positive and can be worked around, if done diligently." DETAILS • The Hearing Loss Association of Whatcom County meets the third Saturday of every month at Christ the Servant Lutheran Church, 2600 Lakeway Drive. For details, call 360-738-3756 or email email@example.com. • To contact the Bellingham office of the Hearing, Speech & Deafness Center, call 360-647-0910 (TTY: 360-647-8508 ) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.