Connecting the Disconnected: Tip #7

The older we get, the more we know. But sometimes that gets in the way of learning (see Tip #5). The process of learning, of itself, becomes more difficult due to factors in aging. Learning new concepts for familiar terms inserts a certain level of confusion into the process, enhanced by the declining ability to exclude the prior associations with those terms in order to learn the new associations. Frequently combined with this is a decline in hearing, caused by both physical and cognitive factors. The physical factor is the declining ability to hear sounds. The cognitive factor is the declining ability to distinguish sounds, caused by cognitive slowing and by neural noise (random signals that are unrelated to actual stimulus). This means what is actually getting through (what can be heard) is getting lost in distractions of prior associations and unrelated associations as the person attempts to “decode” it and make sense of it, causing increased difficulty in understanding what is being said. When this happens in the context of learning new terms and concepts, the ability to hear and understand becomes even more strained.

Rapid speech is obviously not going to work well with this group in a setting where they are learning something new. But slowing down the speed will not completely solve the problem. It is just as important to be very precise and explicit, and to enunciate clearly. Keep in mind many consonant sounds are similar. To older adults with hearing problems, words like com and con sound the same, and they may not have learned enough about the Internet to put “com” into context.

Because of the declines in hearing, context becomes even more important to older adults’ ability to decipher and understand speech. Precise and explicit speech will help keep them on track and in the correct context. For example, spelling out what is to be typed is a good idea, and to be more precise you could use phonetic alphabet words (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc.) to indicate the specific letters. But unless you explicitly say, for example, “type the letters C as in Charlie, O as in Oscar, M as in Mike…” some will just start typing the words you say.

Tip #7: To lessen the effects of hearing loss and related issues of aging, speak slowly, using language that is precise and explicit.

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