BUCKS psychologist Lynda Shaw says an "isolation epidemic" is looming on the horizon as the ‘baby boom generation’ reach old age and start to develop hearing problems.
Through a series of meetings with elderly groups and individuals, age-specialist Dr Shaw found many of those who have lost or are losing their hearing feel lonely and depressed.
In particular, she concluded that those losing their hearing find straining to hear friends and relatives can be exhausting, and misunderstanding conversations embarrassing, so avoiding certain social situations becomes commonplace.
Dr Shaw, who runs private clinics in Bourne End and Chalfont St Giles, told the Bucks Free Press: "Deafness makes people go in on themselves, because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing if they haven’t heard something properly.
"One of the things I find is a lot of people when they are older deliberately cut themselves off because they don’t want to be a burden....
"But we’re not meant to be on our own and lonely, we’re meant to belong to a community where we can contribute. It’s no coincidence that solitary confinement is a form of torture."
In the UK there are an estimated nine million deaf and partially hearing people. About 688,000 of these are severely or profoundly deaf, but the most common cause of hearing loss is ageing, and three-quarters of people who are deaf are aged over 60.
Dr Shaw, who has lectured on Psychology and Neuroscience at Brunel University, added: "Those losing their hearing are often too embarrassed or exhausted to continue socialising which means they become more isolated than ever.
"Loved ones or visitors also become frustrated with repeating themselves or can end up being patronising which again breaks the social circle.
"These amazing people with decades of life experience and a wealth of knowledge end up losing their autonomy, are unable to maintain prominent roles in society and face unacceptable isolation due to lack of community support and the absence of social interaction."
Pensioner Barbara Bennett, of Three Gables, Station Road, Beaconsfield, says many elderly people are forced to rely on family members for interaction.
The 86-year-old is fortunate to have a daughter who visits her regularly, which helps keep her from feeling lonely, but she says others are not so lucky.
She added: "I only go out about once a week now but I don’t get depressed because I see my daughter and I’ve got my TV which I have on a lot."
"I live in sheltered accommodation so I do meet other people. But it makes a lot of difference if you’ve got family who can come and see you."
And Dr Jim Morrisroe, who runs a domiciliary care firm called Eden Care at Home, based in Gerrards Cross, recognises many of the issues raised by Dr Shaw.
He said some of his clients suffer from loneliness "not only because of loss of hearing but mobility problems and not being able to get out".
He added: "Some of the people we work with don’t see anyone apart from our carers when they come to help them. But we all need human engagement... People shouldn’t be on their own."
Dr Shaw believes the key to preventing such isolation is finding ways in which the older generations can interact with younger age groups.
She said: "Contrary to popular belief, the mature population who have a loss of hearing do not just want to be with other people in their age bracket.
"Most of them would say they want to meet with younger members of the community as well, to have more sense of control over their lives, better access to hearing aids and not to be treated as if they are infirm.
"The next generations won’t want to be going to Bingo or on coach trips. We need to try and encourage our generations to actually mix up a bit.
"If you have a neighbour who’s alone, how about knocking on their door to see if they are all right? If a younger person can help then they can feel good about themselves and that’s also valuable...It’s a two-way street.
"For example, there’s probably a very large number of young people who don’t know how to do any DIY, and there are loads of older people who know how to do that. Let’s tap into that before the information is lost completely.
"Focus needs to be centred on providing invigorating and current events for the older hearing-challenged generation.
"Isolation kills people, and it kills people slowly, so we must make every effort to help those suffering from deafness to remain autonomous, have integrity and to be heard."