As many as two-thirds of older adults will experience hearing loss, but many won’t do anything about it, says Dr. Carrie Nieman, a resident at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
For some, hearing aids are too expensive and too difficult to obtain, they cost thousands of dollars, aren’t covered by Medicare or Medicaid and require multiple visits to doctors. Only about 20 percent of those with hearing loss will use hearing aids, said Nieman, an ear, nose and throat resident and post-doctoral fellow at the Center on Aging and Health.
“That’s a huge [group] of people who do not get care,” she said.
But Nieman has a plan to change that: Access HEARS, a social enterprise she’s founded to provide low-cost hearing assistance to low-income seniors. Rather than thousands of dollars in doctors’ fees and equipment costs, Nieman expects the total average cost for each patient to be about $200 — or less, if the patient can’t cover the cost.
Rather than offering a clinical-grade hearing aid that a patient might obtain from an audiologist, Access HEARS provides lower-tech devices known as personal sound amplifiers. The basic principle is the same — the devices deliver amplified sound to a patients ears — but the personal amplifiers aren’t considered a treatment for hearing loss; they don’t provide the level of sensitivity or the range of customizable features that hearing aids do, Nieman said.
Access HEARS grew out of the research of Dr. Frank Lin, Nieman’s mentor at the Center on Aging and Health, who studies the effect of hearing loss on the cognitive and physical abilities of older adults.
Although a direct, causal relationship hasn’t been proven, hearing loss has been linked to the development of dementia and cognitive decline and has been shown to increase social isolation, Nieman said.
Looking for a way to serve more adults with hearing loss, Nieman took the problem to Johns Hopkins University’s Social Innovation Lab, an early-stage incubator that offers mentoring and funding to growing nonprofits and socially-conscious companies.
The lab includes seminars on budgeting and creating a business plan — things generally not covered in medical school, Nieman said.
“We really want to help people who are being innovative in their approach to social issues, particularly here in Baltimore,” said Darius Graham, director of the Social Innovation Lab.
Nieman has substantial experience working with and researching the issue of hearing loss, which made her an ideal candidate for the lab, which specializes in helping people translate raw passion into viable social ventures, Graham said.
With help from the lab and prize money from an AARP Foundation business plan competition she won in 2014, Access HEARS has raised $25,000 and recently completed its initial, proof-of-concept trial, Nieman said.
The project now has a fundraising goal of $100,000, which Nieman expects will help Access HEARS grow to a sustainable level within two years, she said.
That initial trial included about 30 residents of three Weinberg Senior Living facilities, located near the Park Heights neighborhood of Baltimore City.
Facility administrators have had concerns about some residents with hearing loss for some time, said Carolyn Y. Peoples, service coordinator for Weinberg Place.
Sometimes, people will pretend to be able to hear during a conversation but laugh at the wrong moments; in other cases, people may yell when talking to people with hearing loss, or start talking about them as if they’re not in the room, Peoples said.
But the Access HEARS pilot led to a marked difference for several residents, with whom Peoples can now speak in a normal tone of voice, she said.
“They’re not isolated in their apartments,” she said. “They’re in the dining room, having conversations.”
Access HEARS offered Weinberg Place residents a choice of two devices: one is a wearable earpiece — not unlike a Bluetooth adapter for your cellphone — and the other is a small grey box with a microphone, into which the user plugs a pair of headphones.
The same devices can be purchased on Amazon.com, with prices ranging from about $120 to about $350, but Access HEARS also provides counseling and training in how to use the devices, which adds value to the product, Nieman said.
Access HEARS’ strategy relies on the use of community health workers — individuals who come from the community and have been trained to counsel those with hearing loss and teach them to use the sound amplifiers. Nieman envisions that Access HEARS will ultimately have two paid community health workers who will be supervised part-time by team of doctors.
If the health workers come from the same cultural background and have shared experiences with the people they’re working to treat, there’s a greater level of trust and a higher chance of success, Nieman said.
That success is already evident among the participating Weinberg Place residents, whose age ranges from about 62 to nearly 90, said Peoples.
“The program has exceeded my expectations,” she said. “It’s giving them a greater sense of personhood.”