Am I Responsible for My Mother-in-Law’s Communication?

From Gael Hannan:  This week’s blog is an interesting and emotional reflection written for a class assignment by Jacqueline Arsenault, a Speech-Language Pathology Masters student at the University of Toronto. It was partly inspired by my workshop on bluffing, The Masks of Hearing Loss (Bluffing 101), which I had presented to  her Aural Rehabilitation class, a course taught by my friend Dr. Joanne Deluzio. This heartfelt and pain-filled reflection is a common scenario in families affected by hearing loss, and I’m grateful to Jacqueline for her courage in sharing this story of her family.


Am I Responsible for My Mother-in-Law’s Communication?

By Jacqueline Arsenault


My mother-in-law has hearing loss. Either at birth or from a young age, she had total deafness in her right ear and hearing loss in her left ear. The hearing in her left ear progressively worsened to a profound sensorineural hearing loss and, four years ago, she made the difficult decision to get a cochlear implant (the right ear was not eligible for implantation).

I have a confession to make, though. My mother-in-law frustrates me.  She upsets me and she angers me.

My mother-in-law peeves me when she bangs cupboards and dishes and doors. This was especially exasperating when I was trying to get my babies to sleep. Their eyes would finally close, and then, BANG! She irks me when she doesn’t laugh when I display my brilliant sense of humor. She doesn’t even smile.

Now, I finally understand that she doesn’t do these things because she’s a cruel woman. I now know this is all linked to her hearing loss. I realize now that she can’t hear those banging sounds. And humor is difficult to grasp when you can’t hear all the words, sounds, nuances, and social cues.

But what frustrates me the most is that our relationship is stifled by her bluffing, that she looks away when I am talking to her, and that she looks to her husband immediately for clarification if she doesn’t understand me. We live 7½ hours apart and yet, when we are visiting together, she invariably closes herself off from us by picking up a book rather than trying to talk with the family.

It is upsetting that she no longer attends church, weddings, or larger family gatherings because she can’t understand the priest, she can’t talk to anyone, and she can’t enjoy the music.

What about trying an FM system? What about reconnecting with loved ones that are rarely seen? What about finding different ways to communicate – with pen and paper or technology? She often talks about others and how baffled she is that “everyone knows that I have hearing loss, but no one changes anything or helps me.” My husband and I try to sympathize, but also tell her she needs to remind people, tell them how to communicate differently with her. She needs to advocate for herself.  It’s terrible that this is an ongoing effort for her, but her disability is not obvious to everyone, and it is not at the top of everyone’s mind. When people talk to her, they can’t always be sure that she has heard them, or that she cares to hear what they have to say.

We absolutely should be aware of how we communicate when we are with her, but is it our job to always check that she has understood us? I don’t think so; she  needs to help us too.

I am also saddened that her husband deprives himself of traveling, or going on hunting or fishing trips because my mother-in-law is so dependent on him. She simply can’t be alone for any length of time. It might be possible for him to go away sometimes if the house were equipped with a Shake-Awake (vibrating alarm clock), a visual smoke/CO2 alarm, and a means for her to use the telephone. My husband and I have talked to his parents about installing these devices and perhaps using a TTY service. They feign interest and vaguely say that they will look into it. It’s devastating. And worrisome. And maddening. What could be more important than taking advantage of these life-saving technologies?

While I’m ashamed that I am not more sympathetic to her self-pity, it’s also hurtful when she says that the only people who “get her” are her daughter-in-law (the other one) and her niece-in-law. It is heartbreaking that despite being told by her doctors that the cochlear implant would not enable her to have typical hearing, she is disappointed that the operation wasn’t a miracle for her, as it had been for other recipients she talked to. She was told  her hearing would likely improve with a cochlear implant, and it did. But the implant causes her discomfort, she hears echoing sounds, music has lost all meaning for her, and she doesn’t have that “golden ring” of natural hearing.

I sincerely feel badly that the outcome wasn’t what she wished for. It is sad when she asks us to pray that her cochlear implant will miraculously get better. I tell her that I will pray for her, but I will also pray that she embraces the improvement in hearing that the implant has given her, and that she finds a way to cope and work through all of the difficulties.

I wonder how different my connection with my mother-in-law would be if I had been better educated on hearing loss and how to communicate better with those with hearing loss when I was younger. I love my mother-in-law, and I hope to have a meaningful and deep relationship with her someday. I hope  she will help me, and others, to communicate better with her. I hope that she will recognize all the positives in her life, instead of concentrating on what she doesn’t have.

During a talk the other day, Gael Hannan said something that really struck me: “Some people let hearing loss define them.”  I see this in my mother-in-law, and I hope that she can break out of it and participate more fully in life.


About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

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jennifer gibson

While I understand the anger, confusion and frustration dealing with someone who has a hearing loss, you need to remember that it’s not their fault that they are unable to hear. They may have other limitations or issues that extend beyond their initial hearing loss such as depression which is a common factor associated with it. I have met many people with a hearing loss, some embrace it fully and do everything in their power to make their world as accessible as possible. I have also met many others who are too shy or extremely embarrassed to utilize equipment that… Read more »


I just want to share with you that we’ve been visiting with our family since Tuesday, and my mother-in-law is interested in a few new things, like an FM system and a tablet PC. She also got some paper and a pen out to help aid some communication the other day. We have not seen her since January, so these gains are extremely exciting for us to see. Exciting for her too I think! She seems genuinely interested in making some positive changes. Just wanted to share that with you. Thank you to the people that posted their thoughts here,… Read more »

Marianne Keyes

This is wonderful news! I have a Widex FM system and have computer experience and can give advice as needed. I do find that Apple facetime is easier to hear with than Skype. I have an ipad as well as pc. Let me lnow if you need assistance!

Alice Adams

This sounds wonderful. I’m so glad I came back to follow up on this article. Here’s wishing for brighter and happier days for all of you. Things do seem to be improving.


Marianne Keyes

Boy, this is a tough one. I, too have been just like your mother-in-law. Hearing loss is scary and exhausting. I too no longer attend Church or limit large family gatherings but not because I don’t want to go. I have a great hearing aid, with FM and T-coil and my Church doesn’t have that technology. I have found that most Churches in my area don’t. I no longer enjoy music, not because I don’t want to, but because my ears no longer process music in the same way. What is beautiful music to others is like fingernails on blackboards… Read more »


Thanks for sharing, Marianne!

Peggy Ellertsen

Hearing loss in and of itself is not a handicap. The functional consequences of hearing loss – their ability to progressively blindside a person – embody the handicap of hearing loss. I believe that two ingredients are essential for improving the functioning of persons whose hearing loss results in handicap. The first is the opportunity to tell one’s personal story about the feelings related to isolation and lonliness (even and especially in a room filled with hearing people;) specific factors that interrupt communication, (i.e., not just the hearing loss, but factors related to communication style of the speaker, acoustic environment,… Read more »

Barbara Johnson

Dear Jacqueline. As a relatively new CI user who has also embraced hearing assistive technology this post interests me. I understand frustration on both sides. And I can’t help thinking that in spite of how it may appear your mother in law is not happy missing out. Rather than tell she and her husband what they “should” do, why don’t you show them. You don’t say how this couple feels about technology but many are easily overwhelmed by it. Buy them a bed shaker or fm system and help them learn how to use it. They just may surprise you… Read more »

Michele Linder

No, you are not responsible for your Mother-in-law’s communication. She is responsible for figuring out her hearing loss for herself, but it sounds like she’s content to play the victim and be over-dependent on her husband and family. It also sounds like the Father-in-law is enabling the MIL to depend on him too much (maybe they are of the generation where it’s acceptable for the wife to lean on her man too much and for him to come to her aid even when it’s not needed), and I’m wondering if the two other people who “get her” are overcompensating? Many… Read more »

Alice Adams

I read this with a great deal of interest. It was thought provoking in so many ways because I felt those comments could have been said about me at times. Hearing loss is a very difficult disability. It separates you from life events that you grieve for. In this case – I feel that the communications barrier is coming from both sides. The daughter-in-law does not state that she has taken the time to bring these issues tactfully to her mother-inl-law’s attention. The mother-in-law has apparently not tried to help herself. I am sure she is not happy to be… Read more »

Caroline Gatchalian

I don’t know what to feel and for whom I feel for! This is such a powerful story because Jacqueline represents the people we, as hard of hearing/deaf, desire in our lives. She empathizes with her mother-in-law’s hearing loss, aware of her communication needs, and is genuinely proactive in her wish to hear better. But the other half of the equation is missing! The answer to the problem will never be solved I’m afraid without the participation, input, and contribution from the mother-in-law. But isn’t the mother-in-law’s lack of self-advocacy a recurring problem that is too often relatable by us… Read more »