When Catherine O'Shea moved to her new home at Cedar Crest, a senior living community in Pequannock, the former Hunterdon County resident said she lost a lot.
O'Shea's hearing was damaged in a car crash. She had successfully lobbied to make Hunterdon venues, like her local library, accessible for people like her. But in Morris County, she’s had to start all over.
This time she decided to focus on her new home and its 1,800 residents. Some 25% of people over 60 have impaired hearing, according to the Maryland-based Hearing Loss Association of America. That rises to 50% of those over the age of 75. Yet it’s all too common to find communities built for seniors that are not accessible to people with hearing loss, advocates say.
The Hearing Loss Association calls the situation “a public health crisis” and has implored senior living providers to pay attention.
“There's a growing number of people that find themselves with this invisible disability,” said Meredith Resnick, an association spokesperson. “It's 48 million Americans, or roughly one in seven, and the World Health Organization estimates that to grow exponentially in the next few years.”
Lise Hamlin, the Hearing Loss Association's director of public policy, often does presentations at assisted living facilities and retirement communities; she likes to tell the story of a woman who wandered into one of her sessions.
During her talk, Hamlin noticed a resident who seemed disconnected from what was going on around her. Hamlin pulled out a "pocket talker," a one-on-one communication device, and handed it to the woman, who appeared skeptical. Her face brightened as she put on the headset and Hamlin's voice came ringing through. The woman suddenly found herself reconnected to the people around her, Hamlin said.
People tend to “withdraw” because “they don't want to feel dumb," Hamlin said. "They don't want to feel like they can't get involved. They get isolated. They get depressed."
What's more, people with hearing loss have a higher risk of developing dementia, according to the National Institutes of Health, which adds the caveat that a causal relationship has yet to be found.
There are a number of aids available, like Hamlin’s “pocket talker,” which uses a handheld microphone and headphones. Other options include captioning, and American Sign Language interpretation.
But the HLAA says that induction looping, also known as a hearing loop, or just “looping,” is the most effective way to include people with hearing loss in settings like these.
How induction loops work
The system consists of a microphone and amplifier that can transmit signals through a set of wires, or loop, that are typically concealed in walls, ceiling tiles or floors. The signals can be picked up by a setting available on most hearing aids and cochlear implants.
The technology, indicated by a blue sign with an ear, has become common over the last 20 years in settings such as ticket booths in theaters and transportation hubs. It's also in use at the U.S. Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, many legislative chambers and stadiums.
But it wasn't available at Cedar Crest when O'Shea first arrived. During a three-day series of information sessions over the summer, she and fellow resident Richard Cohen demonstrated the benefits of the technology to other occupants.
Cohen used audio files to illustrate what gatherings were like with and without looping. The first clip he played for onlookers approximated audio clutter: No single sound was discernible. A second clip tamed the noise, giving people a sense of what looping can provide. Voices and announcements were easier for people with hearing loss to pick out, he said.
The systems are also a favorite of Arlene Romoff, a Hackensack resident who lost her hearing as an adult and who advocates for more accessibility in New Jersey.
“There really is a solution that is available, not too expensive, easily accessed and no extra equipment needed,” she said. “It can be used by people using hearing aids and cochlear implants that are equipped with telecoils (t-coils). So it solves the hearing problem in most seniors without calling attention to themselves.”
But, it’s rare to find such an accommodation in senior living facilities around the state and country, local and national advocates say.
“There are very few places," Hamlin said. "Hearing loss is not on the top of the list." You’re more likely to find wheelchair ramps in facilities, she added because mobility issues are more obvious and top-of-mind than "invisible disabilities."
The biggest obstacle to accessibility is often awareness, she added, on the part of both home operators and residents themselves who don't know about the available solutions. The next hurdle for a large institution is often cost.
Senior living and 'hearing support'
Cedar Crest installed induction looping in its 230-seat performing arts center in August and plans to do the same for its chapel in October. Combined, the two projects cost approximately $80,000, according to spokesperson Petra Shaw.
While the system isn't in use yet at Cedar Crest, O'Shea already has even more ambitious plans. Cedar Crest is one of 22 locations managed by Erickson Senior Living nationwide. More than 28,000 people live in its homes across 11 states, according to Shaw.
O’Shea was invited to Erickson's corporate headquarters earlier this month to discuss adding induction loops at the chain's other communities.
"They asked me to come to Erickson's corporate headquarters to discuss how what we have achieved here can most effectively be shared among all Erickson communities," O'Shea said, adding that the company told her it wanted to lead the way in "hearing support."
Hamlin would like to see other senior living companies take the same step. Hearing should be framed as a "quality of life" issue, she said. More facilities need to have the revelation that investing in accessibility is an investment in the well-being of their residents, she said.
Gene Myers covers disability and mental health for NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ senior living community pioneers loop for hearing loss