Has the Pandemic Affected Your Hearing?

Captions have become ubiquitous during these many months of isolation. Is that an unmitigated good for those with hearing loss? For me, at least, maybe not.

When I watch TV or streaming video, it’s captioned. I set the volume so I can hear the spoken words to supplement the captions, but it’s the other way around. The captions fool me into thinking I’m hearing.

My phone is captioned, and again the captions seem to clarify the sound.  

Meetings online are captioned. Thank goodness.

This is all very convenient, but is it good for my hearing?

Are you really listening?

I see family and friends in person, and after a brief adjustment period, I’m usually okay. Familiar faces, familiar voices. No masks. I read lips to supplement. I sometimes use Otter captions.

But lately I’ve noticed that I’m not hearing what I used to. I have trouble understanding people I used to be fine with. I’ve always been able to follow my Pilates teacher if she’s wearing my companion mic, but now her words, muffled by a mask, are lost to me.

Unfamiliar voices, masked or not, are more difficult than they used to be.

Routine cash register comments?  If it’s the pharmacy, it’s probably, “Date of birth?” But the other day one stumped me. The masked supermarket clerk behind her plexiglass shield repeated her question three or four times. Finally, I took a stab at “No, thanks.” It was only when I was out of the store that I realized she was asking, “Do you want to use reward points for this?”

Like many of us during the pandemic, I‘m alone much of the time. I don’t feel isolated, because I keep in touch with friends and family by FaceTime, email, and phone calls. Most days I exchange routine greetings with people on the street, or with the guy I buy my newspaper from, or from other dog walkers. But exchanging pleasantries doesn’t require real hearing.

It’s possible the problem is that I’m just out of practice. Or maybe I’ve gotten lazy with my hearing: I don’t try to distinguish sound because I don’t need to in my captioned world. I’m hearing but not listening. A few years ago I wrote about “mindful listening” in a post on auditory rehabilitation. I may not be following my own advice.

Is this a pandemic side effect? Has isolation affected my hearing? Or, maybe, has isolation affected my listening? I’ve made an appointment with my audiologist to check my heairng, both with and without hearing aids. If it turns out my hearing is unchanged, I’ll have to chalk it up to lazy listening.

Readers, have you had a similar experience? Did you have your hearing checked? Was it your hearing or your listening that was causing the problem. Please share in the comments.


For more about living with hearing loss, read  Smart Hearing, available on paper or as an e-book at Amazon.com, or Shouting Won’t Help, available in both formats at Amazon and other booksellers.

20 thoughts on “Has the Pandemic Affected Your Hearing?

  1. Kathleen,

    I wish I could agree that captioning is ubiquitous. In my world it is much more frequently available now, but far from always. Apparently it is too expensive for some hosts, and when something is online to be helpful, it’s difficult to tell people they may be breaking the law by failing also to provide captioning. Also I’m unclear where that line is: how substantial or what must the context be for the ADA to apply? I’ve been told in one instance that it can be provided if I pay for it. Is that okay? I believe with Zoom the host is charged for captioning. Or for transcription, which I think is after the event and for recordings. Do you understand all this better than I do? In my case, I think the host was willing to switch to Zoom from Go To Meeting, which did not offer captioning at all but which she had free access to, and that would cost me $15 per month.

    As we return more to meeting in person, I also find that masking and/or distancing defeat me, and I have had to opt out of some groups important to me. Masking often makes it completely impossible for me to hear. The words are often only just beyond accessibility. Or I can hear some voices, usually strong and male, but not others. Distancing comes into it when some groups try in-person outdoors. Beyond about five people I’m defeated. I’ve tried using Ava, but if I don’t get it, she doesn’t either. Is Otter any better? Or is there anything else designed for small groups rather than just hearing one on one?

    For me, I think the captioning is a blessing, unmitigated really. I can’t relax into captioning: it isn’t accurate enough. And I can’t unhear the conversation moving on beyond the captioning even when I don’t adequately understand it. But listening is stressful (and aren’t we veering toward thinking that is a factor, if not the factor, that makes hearing loss a significant risk factor for dementia?) and I need all the help I can get at my level of loss (moderate to severe). Plus so often when I can’t hear a key word and lose context, the captioner often obviously can’t hear either, but their best guess added to mine is a help.


    • Hi Ann, Captioning is free on meeting platforms, including Google Meet and Zoom. Smart Phone captioning apps like Otter for iPhones and Google Live Transcribe for Androids are also free. If your organizing is using a meeting platform that doesn’t have captions, ask them to switch to Zoom or Google Meet. You can also turn on your smart phone captions and set the phone up next to your computer. It will provide live captioning. CART live captioning is usually best (depending on the skill of the captioner ) and no caption app is perfect. I sometimes use the captions provided supplemented by Otter, because sometimes one app will catch a phrase that the other missed. I also use speech reading on virtual meetings. Set your Zoom to speaker mode, rather than gallery, and you will be able to see the speaker better. And of course no masks on virtual meetings.
      I don’t use AVA or other apps because Otter is so good, and I don’t use Go To Meeting because it’s basically not offered. I can usually follow a personal call on FaceTime, because it’s a familiar voice and face, and if I’m having trouble I set up Otter. For regular phone calls I use Innocaption — another free app. There really is no reason you should pay for captions. The apps are all free.
      If you can’t afford a Smart Phone, buy a cheap Android device without phone access — just apps. But if you can afford a smart phone, it may be the best assistive device you can get.
      I see lots of comments. Maybe others have offered other suggestions.


    • It’s still so important to educate so many others about our need for captioning for equal communication access. As mentioned by Katherine, all Zoom accounts have automatic captioning systems for free now, yet it’s not always turned on, and you have to ask (preferably in advance of any online meeting). These machine systems are far from perfect yet they help hugely, Human CARTCaptioning professional providers have been very busy during the pandemic also, needed for schools, medical sessions, etc.

      Regarding Otter, which I’ve also been using, they sent an email the other day they are reducing the free time from 40 to 30 minutes – sigh.

      Advocacy for captioning in so many other places has been somewhat slower during these many months of the pandemic, though some are making great efforts (e.g. for open captions at movies).

      As for captioning reducing our “hearing’ acuity – provocative and good question. Could be time to get to the audiologist for testing, and/or perhaps push oneself to listen actively again, while captions are on, as mentioned by others. At the same time, some of the fatigue or anxiety associated with these times probably makes many of us a little “lazy” at times and we deserve to rest our ears sometimes also.

      For anyone reading who does not have a hearing loss, it may be confusing that we want to listen, and hear as much as possible, even though we have hearing aids or cochlear implants – many if not most of us still depend on good captioning for full comprehension.


    • Angel Sounds and other programs for auditory rehab are a great idea. I try to keep in shape (hearing wise) by listening to recorded books and podcasts. I do miss things but the more I listen the better I do. Thanks for writing.


  2. I have been having more trouble understanding speech whether in person or tv. My hearing has not changed, and my hearing aids have been recently cleaned professionally. Very disconcerting


    • Hi Al, thanks for commenting. My problem exactly. Roger Talbott suggested going back to home AR practicie. Angel Sound and others, or just listening without captions and then turning captions on to see how you did. You can do this with a recorded book or by using the captioning app but not looking at it, and then going back to check your accuracy.
      Otter offers voice transcription as well as text, so it’s a good app to use for this kind of practice.


  3. Thanks for bringing this up. I may be experiencing this at least partially as I watch a lot of captioned movies on TV. On the other hand, when I do zoom meetings I stream the sound via my Phonak Roger Pen charger and for me the sound is good while I am reading the lips of the people I encounter on Zoom. This may be helping me.


  4. I’m polishing up my high school ASL since I have a couple friends who are ASL interpreters. They help me when in live meetings we attend together. I figure it’s keeping my brain active in areas that may be losing due to mask muffling.


  5. Ann: It appears that Zoom has made captioning available for free on free accounts — or will soon.

    I have not tried it and I don’t know how well it works or if it has started. But I had also seen other articles saying that this was happening.

    The Verge article includes this explanation for how to do it:

    “To enable captions in Zoom meetings, an account owner or a user with admin privileges can sign into the Zoom web portal, then find “account management” in the navigation menu. Choose “account settings,” then click the “meeting” tab. Under “in meeting (advanced),” toggle the closed captioning option to enable it.”


    • Thanks Karen for the link and the explanation. I also offered Ann some advice about captions. Often a meeting host will begin the meeting by explaining how to use the captions.
      It’s also us to us, as it is in many situations, to ask for captions in advance. If we want accommodations we must ask for them. They aren’t always provided automatically. This helps us individually but also helps all people with hearing loss because it reminds everyone how important captions are.


  6. “Lazy listening” – So simple yet so profound. I’m guilty. And I take it a step farther by faulting the speaker for talking too fast, mumbling, having an accent or having a voice that’s pitched too high for my hearing. I’m fond of saying, “If everyone sounded like Walter Cronkite I wouldn’t need any help”. This attitude lets me off the hook but doesn’t deal with the problem.

    I’m sorry to admit that my fall-back position is usually avoidance. Not productive or healthy.

    The phone is pure hell for me. I have not yet explored the possibilities that captioning apps offer to the phone user. I have InnoCaption but that has not jelled for me yet. I’ll get Otter and see how that helps.

    TV captioning seems to be in its infancy. If I can get BT streaming audio to work that can be enough but real time captioning is simply not available to most regular TV content. Captioning can be configured in most systems but usually it comes with an annoying delay.

    Thank you Katherine. You always leave me thinking,


    • Jerry, Innocaption has changed my life. It’s easy and reliable. For more info, sign on to our Feb 1 chapter meeting. innocaptions is our guest speaker. Go to hearinglossnyc.org and click on Programs.
      Otter (or Live Transcribe if you have an Android phone) is also remarkably helpful, though a little less accurate. I sometimes watch both Otter and Zoom or other captions at the same time, especially if the speakers have foreign accents, which make it harder to caption.


  7. Hi Katherine, I believe some of the problems encountered by the writers above, myself included, are due to
    the cognitive changes one experiences with increasing reliance on captions etc. My processing of language has greatly diminished, slowed down considerably. And my hearing, as others have mentioned has not changed. This over reliance on captions, can be a contributory factor in the development of dementia.

    Thanks so much for your tireless and spirited efforts.


    • Do you really think reliance on captions can contribute to the onset or development of dementia? Are there any studies on that? I’d think that ease of comprehension afforded by captions would keep us engaged and actively participating in discussion — and that that would be beneficial. I’ve always understood that one of the contributing factors to the hearing loss/dementia link is the extra effort it takes to comprehend what’s said. The cognitive load theory. Captions mitigate that — you’re not working as hard to follow and comprehend so you have more cognitive reserve to interpret and remember. Any thoughts about that?


  8. Gosh…who would have thought we would be talking about apps, smartphones, streaming and all these techy terms, concepts and services in these days when just 5-10 years ago, these type of things weren’t around for hard of hearing people. Just trying to catch up to an explosion of possibilities for hearing well challenges all of us. But I much rather have all of this as choices rather than None! I went without for 48 years and wrestle now with trying to find just what I need to balance what my brain can handle with all of the noise out there. Even though we have the capability of ‘hearing’ better now, understanding still is a problem.
    Working and voicing our concerns with the manufacturers, tech companies, legislators, government agencies and others will help to frame what we need in the short term as well as the long term. That is what we see now as the FDA/HHS, Congress and everyone ‘s attention to hearing loss has finally come to. After twenty years of asking, I can see some progress but most results will be for the generations to come rather than for myself. It was worth the effort as I see it. There is limits to what can be done for me but so much can be done in the future now.


  9. I brought the Naida Paradise Ultra Power aids and tv connector. The tv connector device is connected to the tv or laptop. The device sends wireless Bluetooth to my hearing aids. I am totally dependent on captions and or subtitles. l can’t understand the words if l don’t look at the captions. Phonak has an app that l use on my phone. I can change programs, adjust the bass, treble, microphone direction settings, etc. There’s a separate app connected to my hearing aids and it send phone calls to my phone and l read the captions of what the other caller is saying without the need of a separate relay operator. Using two aids along with captions doesn’t cause dementia or make it worse. If an user reads captions without hearing sounds then it will lead to dementia or make it worse if you already have dementia.


    • Thanks for sharing information on various apps and devices. I am curious about your last sentence. I haven’t seen any evidence that reading captions without hearing sounds leads to dementia. It seems unlikely since the brain is still working. It may affect speech pathways in the brain but that’s not the same as dementia. If you’ve seen studies on this, please share. Thanks for writing.


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