The Spiritual Self: Unsung Victim of Hearing Loss

By Kevin Liebe, Au.D.

We rarely discuss the spiritual impact when talking about the many negative consequences of hearing loss. Maybe it’s because discussing religion can be something of a taboo in our culture. Many of us cling to the old wisdom that you should, “never discuss politics or religion in polite company.”

Today, however, Hearing Views will be going rogue.

Why it Matters

During a case history or consultation, it’s pretty typical to find “attending religious services” listed in the top three most difficult listening situations for someone with hearing loss.

While we sometimes pay lip service to the fact that an individual may now have a harder time “hearing in church” due to a hearing loss, for example, most of us don’t really give it a second thought. Yet, this alone could be one of the most damaging aspects of hearing loss on a person’s quality of life.

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard patients tell me that they would like to attend church (or other weekly services), but don’t go because “it’s pointless” since they are unable to hear. They may have been carrying on like this for 10, 15, even 20 or more years.

Being a member of a faith community is considered an essential ingredient to a happy and fulfilled life for millions across the US and Canada. It serves as a connection to God and community.

Sitting in the back with hearing loss? Most houses of worship have terrible acoustics for speech.
Sitting in the back with hearing loss? Most houses of worship have terrible acoustics for speech. Courtesy

With the exception of individuals using sign language, those who have grown up attending their church, synagogue, or other house of worship have grown accustomed to hearing the daily or weekly message. One can only imagine the increased level of frustration experienced in that type of environment by someone with a gradually progressing hearing loss, often seen in age-related hearing decline (presbycusis).

Hearing loss can, and frequently does, work against our interpersonal relationships.

If attending weekly religious service and being active in a community of faith are an important part of an individual’s spiritual life and “health,” untreated hearing loss can certainly work to sabotage those efforts.

It’s hard to imagine any form of weekly or daily religious service that would be able to convey its message fully without using the spoken word.

Quotes regarding hearing, and its connection to our soul and spirit can be found in nearly all of the major religious texts used throughout the world.

Saint Paul, for example, author of 14 of the 27 books in the Christian New Testament, conveys the importance of hearing in his epistle to the Romans, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”{{1}}[[1]] Romans 10:17, ESV[[1]]

Hearing Loss Demographics

% of Population with Hearing Loss by Age
% of Population with Hearing Loss by Age

I often remind my younger patients that hearing loss is not exclusive to “senior citizens,” but it is also true that the majority of people with hearing loss are indeed over 60 years of age. That is a fact.

During a typical week I spend probably half my time working with older patients. Therefore, it is not not surprising that I regularly encounter widows and widowers, as well as people whose spouses are facing dementia and/or other serious health problems. Some of them have no family support system nearby and are struggling to cope with their situation on their own. Coming into my office might be the first time they’ve had a real conversation with someone in weeks (particularly if they can’t hear over the phone).

When discussing the impact hearing loss has on the religious or spiritual dimension of our lives, it’s important to remember that the population over the age of 60 is much more likely to attend religious services than the general population.

For many, being an active member of a faith community and attending services every week can help recharge their batteries and give them the strength to continue coping with their personal struggles. For some, however, the inability to hear and communicate with members of their faith community may become yet be another reminder of the many difficulties they face in life.

Religion: Good Medicine?

Would you believe that attending religious services on a regular basis has actually been found to provide a number of health benefits? It’s true. The improved health function, researchers suggest, is due to the enhanced social networks and support that are often available to those who are active members of a faith community.

Studies over the years have indicated many potential health benefits, such as: increased levels of reported happiness, improved immune system function, reduction in blood pressure, and maybe even an additional seven years added to your lifespan!

The medical community has increasingly begun to recognize the importance of spirituality in the context of health and well being. Today, nearly 90% of all medical schools offer coursework on spirituality.{{2}}[[2]]Koenig HG, Hooten EG, Lindsay-Calkins E, Meador KG. (2010). Spirituality in medical school curricula: findings from a national survey. Int J Psychiatry Med. 2010;40(4):391-8.[[2]]

As a professional, I’m not suggesting you should proselytize your patients by any means, or that you should tell them to start going to church more often so they can reap all the “health benefits.” What I am suggesting is that being sensitive to the spiritual needs of patients is critically important in audiology. It’s part of treating the “whole person”.

Encourage patients who still struggle to hear despite using hearing aids to use the assistive devices that may be offered at their church, synagogue, etc. If their house of worship does not have these devices available, this is a perfect opportunity for you, as the professional (or for a family member or other advocate) to help educate the patient and possibly other members of the community on the benefits of FM systems, loop systems, etc., in making sure that hearing loss does not prevent people from satisfying such a basic human desire as the need for spiritual connection.

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1 Comment

  1. I quit attending church services two years ago because of hearing loss, but have grown closer to the Lord by spending Sunday studying God’s Word alone. I noticed that if they would turn off the P.A. system and learn to project their voice I could hear better and if most pastors obtained training from a speech therapist it would help those with hearing loss.

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