In Pennsylvania, masks are now required to be worn whenever you leave your home.  The Pennsylvania Department of Health asks that we remember this saying, “My mask protects you, your mask protects me.” Besides being slightly uncomfortable in these warm summer months, wearing a mask has been especially challenging for those with hearing and cognitive impairments.  Voice, tone, and facial expressions are all important aspects of communicating effectively. Wearing a mask softens your voice, dampens your tone, and hides your facial expression.  So how do we best communicate with our loved ones while keeping them protected?

Low and Slow

Age-related hearing loss makes it more difficult to hear higher frequencies.  By reducing the speed of your speech and using a lower tone, you can help listeners better follow the conversation.  Increase your volume, but do not shout.  Wearing a mask may muffle the clarity of your speech and shouting further distorts the information.  Try speaking with a lower pitch.

Use Gestures

Likes and dislikes can easily be communicated with a thumbs up or a thumbs down.  Waving, nodding, raising your shoulders and eyebrows are all ways of communicating without speaking. Try using exaggerated gestures and body language to express a point.  Use gestures that both you and your loved one will remember and understand – like playing charades.

Put it in Writing

Writing down a message on paper or a white board may feel impersonal, but it is an effective alternative to communicate with someone who has severe hearing loss.  Be sure to make the information easy to read by using large font and use print, not cursive.  Spacing between words and lines is helpful as well, and give your loved one time to read, process, and respond.

Keep it Light

The need for social distancing has been difficult for us as family members, but it is important to remember the feeling is mutual.  Your loved ones love you and have missed face to face conversations with you as well.  As older adults they are aware of the severity of this public health crisis especially to them.  Keep your conversation focused on something positive because they will remember how your conversation made them feel more than the words you spoke.  This is especially true for loved ones with dementia.  Research shows people with dementia have a heightened sense of emotion – they will feel your frustration with this “new norm” long after your conversation has ended.

Communication with Dementia

Communicating with a loved one who has dementia can be challenging even without adding the barrier of a mask.  Patience is the key to conversation.  Speak clearly, slowly, and try to focus on the important meaning of the information.  Use short sentences and give them time to process and respond.  Repeat or rephrase questions as needed and do not patronizing or ridicule them.  Again, they will remember the feeling long after the conversation ends.