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Topics / AGING : Lip Service : Every week at the Arcadia Community Center, speech pathologist Francine Hokin Katz helps senior citizens cope with hearing loss.


Francine Hokin Katz's lips move but she doesn't speak to her class at the Arcadia Community Center.

Even when she makes sounds, however, many of her students can hear little more. Yet, thanks to the class, they understand what she's saying.

Katz teaches lip-reading to more than 200 moderately to severely hearing-impaired senior citizens in the San Gabriel Valley each week. For some it's a hedge against future hearing loss, or a backup to hearing aids. But for others with more serious hearing problems, it's virtually the only way of understanding verbal communication--and a lifeline out of the isolation that deafness can bring.

At the beginning of each year, students learn to recognize letters and words by the lip positions that create them. They then perform exercises that test their ability to watch speech.

In a drill to recognize food-related words, Katz tells students to think of something they eat with meat. She pronounces the word silently and students select gravy --the rounded lips on "r" and the bite on "v" give it away.

Katz began her career as a speech pathologist for children, then moved into lip-reading. She has been teaching this class for 33 years through Pasadena City College.

About 26 million Americans are hearing-impaired, she says, and almost everyone loses some hearing with age. "This is an invisible handicap and it doesn't get the attention that visible handicaps do," she says. "When we see a person with a bandage on their leg we offer to help. When we come close to a hearing-impaired person we're very annoyed if they don't understand."

Some of Katz's students have been coming for a decade or longer. Many say the skills they have acquired greatly improve their quality of life.

Every Wednesday morning, Kay S. Barham, 78, leaves her Los Angeles home at 6:25, walks half a mile with the aid of a cane and takes two buses to get to the class. Her hearing is so limited that on her way to class one morning she was nearly struck by a fire engine that raced, sirens blaring, down the street. Learning lip-reading was her only recourse, she said.

"It's a matter of necessity," she said. "I was told that they couldn't operate and they couldn't give me a hearing aid."

Josephine Dazzo, 71, had been losing her hearing progressively, then it worsened dramatically in a brief period.

"If I hadn't come to class, I think I would be a recluse," the Arcadia resident said. "I really think I would stay home. But I go out there and struggle and do the best I can. My attitude has changed since I came to class."

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