Communication While Wearing a Mask

In a conversation with Lauren Simmons of PD Buzz in Orange County, California, we discovered that we were both audiologists in our past lives.

We have both gone on to do other things, but we are still audiologists at heart. We talked about how much more difficult communication is when wearing a mask or scarf over our mouths, which can present a real challenge for people with Parkinson’s.

Parkinson's and soft voices

Before the COVID-19 quarantine, many of us already had problems common to PD, such as a soft voice and masked expression. That is compounded by the fact that we, or our spouses, also have hearing losses common with aging. Add a mask and 6-foot social distancing and communication becomes so much more difficult.

Wearing a mask muffles our already soft voices. I noticed when I wear a mask, it is almost impossible for Mr. Twitchy to understand me. He has a hard enough time hearing me under normal circumstances.

When I am wearing a mask, another important piece of communication goes missing – visual clues. Visual clues are so important, even for those with great hearing. So he can’t hear me, he can’t see my lips move. He also cannot see me smile or make other facial expressions when I am wearing a mask.

Non-verbal facial expressions

Lauren recounts a recent trip to the grocery store: "At the store, I realized how difficult it was to communicate in my usual way. I no longer knew what someone meant when they stopped and nodded to me. I couldn’t see their whole face. Were they pausing to let me go in front of them? Were they warning me not to get too close? Were they smiling or grimacing? Likewise, others couldn’t see my facial expressions.”

She says: “Did you know that 70% of communication is non-verbal?  This includes body movement and orientation, hand gestures, vocal intonation, eye contact, and facial expressions.”

Some ideas for improving communication while wearing masks:

  • Work on speaking louder and with intent. Singing and vocal exercises help a lot. Don’t let the stay at home order deter you. There are online programs to help you out. Try joining a group like the Tremble Clefs or the Parkinson’s Voice Project.
  • Try to be more expressive with your eyes, hands, or whatever will help give visual clues.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask someone to repeat themselves. Remember, they are probably having trouble hearing you too.
  • If there are distractions, like a vacuum cleaner or loud TV, wait to talk until things are quieter. Don’t be afraid to turn down the volume so that you can speak and be understood.
  • On Zoom, or other online platforms, use a computer if possible instead of an iPad or phone. It will be easier to see the speakers on a bigger screen. And for those who use it, put on some lipstick. It makes it easier for others to read your lips – but remember it doesn’t do any good if you are wearing a mask!
  • Using a headset that has a microphone or Airpods will make your voice louder and clearer to those listening.
  • If you wear hearing aids, find out if they have Bluetooth. (This was NOT available when I was a practicing audiologist) The bluetooth brings the speaker’s voice right to your hearing aids.
  • Because a third of people over 65 have some hearing loss, get your hearing checked annually by an audiologist, along with an annual eye exam.

Even though the restrictions are starting to ease up, it looks like we will be wearing masks and social distancing for quite a while. Keep on smiling, even behind the mask.

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