A large number of Americans who enter nursing homes each year are both visually and hearing impaired. Severe impairment can lead to social isolation in nursing homes. For these patients it is a lonely life, according to a study published in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences. The social life of the elderly is greatly dependent on how much they can see and hear, according to Helaine E. Resnick, Brant E. Fries and Lois M. Verbrugge of the University of Michigan. The more impaired the person, the lower the level of social engagement and less time spent in activities.
The study of 18,873 nursing home residents showed that those individuals with moderate and severe hearing impairment did not participate in activities as much as others. And those individuals with inadequate communication had limited social engagement and participation in activities.
The researchers found that the negative impact of visual impairment on both social engagement and time in activities increases as impairment increases. Compared to those with adequate vision, those with minimal impairment have about 20% greater likelihood of having low social engagement, and a 15% greater likelihood of having low time in activities. Those with severe visual impairment, however, have a 50% chance of having low social engagement, and a 65% likelihood of having low time in activities.
The effects of hearing impairment are more attenuated than those for visual impairment. "Minimal hearing impairment is not associated with low social engagement or time in activities. Moderate hearing impairment is unrelated to low social engagement... Severe hearing impairment, however, is associated with both low social engagement and low time in activities," according to Resnick, Fries and Verbrugge. "At this level of hearing impairment, there is a 42% greater prevalence of low social engagement and 30% greater prevalence of low time in activities." This suggests, the researchers noted, that those individuals who are severely or moderately hearing impaired may not be getting much out of their social activities in nursing homes.
The study is significant in that it is important to consider an older person's sensory and communication abilities when assessing nursing home facilities and how that person is going to spend his or her waking hours there.