Hearing and vision problems reduce the active participation of older people in various events and activities. This was observed in two studies carried out by the Gerontology Research Center at the Academy of Finland (GEREC).
Impaired vision and hearing make it difficult to interact in social situations. However, social relationships and situations in which there is an opportunity to meet and interact with other people are important for older adults’ quality of life. Sensory impairments are common among older adults. About one third of Europeans aged 50 and older were found to have impairment in hearing, vision, or both sensory functions.
Sensory problems are markedly more common among older age groups. “We found that older adults with hearing problems participate in group activities and meet their friends less often than those with good hearing,” says one of the study’s lead authors, Anne Viljanen.
The other study’s lead author, Tuija Mikkola says, “Group activities are challenging for older people with hearing problems, as they often have a great deal of difficulty conversing with several people in a noisy environment. The results also showed that people with hearing difficulties perceived their ability to live their lives as they would like as poorer than those with good hearing.”
Mikkola’s study is part of a broader Life-Space Mobility in Old Age (LISPE) study. In the LISPE study, 848 community-dwelling persons aged 75 to 90 years were interviewed. Almost half of the subjects reported some difficulties and 1 in 10 reported major difficulties when conversing with another person in the presence of noise.
Viljanen’s study was carried out in collaboration with a research group from the University of Southern Denmark. The data gathered by the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) project includes 11 European countries. More than 27,000 persons 50 years and older from the Nordic countries, Central Europe, and the Mediterranean countries participated in SHARE.
The study evaluated the prevalence of hearing and vision problems and whether these sensory impairments are linked to social activity. People with vision or hearing problems were less socially active than those without sensory problems, and those with both vision and hearing problems were least socially active, Anne Viljanen says.
Rehabilitation is important according to both Viljanen and Mikkola. The researchers believe preventive and rehabilitative measures are important in order to support older people with sensory impairments in living socially active lives. They say it is possible to compensate an impairment of one sense to some extent; for example, people with hearing problems are more likely to use visual cues of speech. Thus, it is important to converse face-to-face with people with impaired hearing as it helps facilitate lip-reading. Concomitant hearing and visual impairment also require special skills from healthcare and rehabilitation personnel, as well as close collaboration between different healthcare specialists.
The studies were carried out by the Gerontology Research Center, which is a collaboration between the University of Jyväskylä and the University of Tampere. This research is part of an international consortium called Hearing, Remembering and Living Well funded by the Academy of Finland as a part of the ERA-AGE2 call. ??The results are being published in the Journal of Aging and Health and the European Journal of Aging.