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What's wrong with lip reading?

I'm on the verge of having my hearing professionally evaluated.

The clues are many. People say things to me that seem muffled and fuzzy-sounding. I struggle to hear in unfamiliar situations — sometimes even in familiar ones. I occasionally think, "Am I actually lip reading? Has it come to that?" Then I realize, "I'm rather good at reading lips!" That reality gives me only brief satisfaction.

I wrote a column about age-related hearing difficulties five years ago when hearing well was not a problem for me. I write again because I need my own advice — and some additional ideas. I thought you might, too.

There are a lot of us. Sometimes I feel surrounded by people with hearing challenges. I'm standing ear to ear with the one in every three people over age 60 who has hearing difficulties in some form. (For the record, it's one in every two people over age 85.)

My loss happened gradually. I went through the phase where I thought, "Those young people, they're just mumbling more." Now I'm in the "push the volume buttons way up" phase with occasional dips into the "background noises are irksome" phase. Women and children with softer, less well-enunciated voices (as my own voice can be for other aging ears) are the most difficult. Ever trying to look on the bright side — I'm thinking that will deter me from talking to myself.

Did that last sentence make you smile a little? No? I'm not surprised. I've observed people with hearing difficulties lose a little of their sense of humor, too. Suppose you're at a gathering of older adults and they are chatting about their maladies (I call those occasions "organ recitals"). Hearing problems do not seem to be discussed as often as arthritic knees. As my younger brother Robert says, "I feel a little embarrassed about it — seems like such a sign of old age, makes me feel disconnected."

Well bro, that's not a good thing. Let's figure this out together.

The National Institute on Aging indicates hearing loss is one of the most prevalent, and most treatable, health conditions. We should start by having an evaluation with a qualified audiologist (here I go talking to myself again). In addition, the Oregon-based Web site for deaf and hard of hearing services: www.oregon.gov/dhs/odhhs (503-373-7605) is an incredible resource. They actually provide personal listening systems, TV listening equipment and several types of telephone amplifying devices. You or an organization you are affiliated with can request resources, get training, or just ask questions.

Oregon's Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services also makes available a fact sheet developed by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association that is filled with tips for speakers and listeners. It suggests, for example, "The sounds most difficult to hear are the easiest to see."

So I'm thinking they approve of my face-to-face approaches and my lip reading prowess (or as they refer to it — "speech reading.") Those same experts tell me, "Relax," Don't strain to understand every word, follow context." Am I hearing this right? A government agency with good information, fresh ideas and even a little comfort?

It's a good thing.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.