The benefits of lipreading for older adults

Many older adults are relieved that most people no longer feel the need to wear face masks.

The reason is one you may not suspect; Unmasking gives us the ability to lipread.

Lipreading is defined as the art of being able to see speech sounds. It is often called speechreading because people use other clues - such as facial expressions, gestures, and surroundings - to help them understand what is being said.

Most people who can hear clearly process some speech information by watching the moving mouth. In fact, in good conditions, about 40 percent of the sounds in the English language can be seen on the lips. Lipreading is very helpful in communicating during noisy situations.

It can also help people who are hearing impaired to cope better with their hearing loss. Difficulties in hearing can be helped by allowing visual features to complement the communication process.

I know for myself that it was hard for me to understand people during the COVID pandemic when their mask covered their mouth. Their voices were muffled, and I did not have the benefit of reading their lips to help me understand what they were saying.

The feeling of deja-vu at having to work harder to listen to a masked person came to me the other day when I brought my older adult friend to her doctor’s appointment. As we ambled down the hall to the exam room, the masked nurse was ahead of us, leading the way and carrying on a conversation neither of us were able to understand.

My friend has hearing loss and wears hearing aids. She had an even harder time discerning what the nurse was saying.

Even if the nurse was not wearing a mask, I am not sure either one of us would have had an easier time understanding her, as the back of the nurse’s head was to our faces, so we could not read her lips.

I am amazed as to how many people attempt to have conversations with older adults without facing them – the hostess leading the way to the table at a restaurant, the driver of a transportation van, the person administering an eye exam behind a piece of testing equipment, the individual providing a facility tour, or someone asking a question of you with their head down, as they look at the paper in front of them.

I could recount many more examples. 

I am asking anyone who has a role in an older adult’s life to recognize how vital it is to remember that lipreading is an important form of communication.    

Face an older adult directly when you are addressing them, so that they can see your entire face. Do not shout. Try to speak at a normal pace and pause in between sentences. If possible, have your conversation in a place that has good lighting so that they can see you clearly, and use expressive hand gestures and body language. 

Most mornings I talk to my mom on the phone. There is no ability to lipread then. I know she has some hearing loss, and I can tell when she is struggling to make sense of what I have said. There is a longer than normal pause in her reply. I wait for her response, and if it does not come, I try to restate my last sentence, and maybe spell the word I think she might be having trouble with.

The beauty of still having my mom in my life is our conversations, and I don’t want either of us to miss any of those exchanges.

Hearing is essential for maintaining relationships and connections with friends and family, and experiencing life events. Hearing makes it possible to engage, listen, laugh, and enjoy many of the things that help shape our quality of life.

Lipreading is a vital communication tool that we can enable if we just put our mind to it.

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Andrea GallagherAndrea Gallagher

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