Looper Speech & Hearing Center's new location has allowed for expanded programs and a better experience for clients during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the center's president and CEO.

"We are essential and needed to stay open" during the pandemic, but the smaller space of the former location forced the center to ask patients to wait in their vehicles until their appointments for the sake of social distancing, said Kathie Edwards, the center's president and CEO. "This decreased our social time with the families and drove us crazy, (as) we have seen so much stress with our patients due to lack of socialization."

The new building on Chattanooga Avenue features a pair of spacious waiting rooms, which allows for increased socialization with patients, especially important with children, said Edwards, a speech pathologist. "To stop (their) structured routine" can disrupt progress that has been made with them.

The larger building, which the center moved into early in February, has also allowed for expansion of the audiology program, said audiologist Katie McCreery-Scarbor. "It was pretty tight before."

The center now boasts a new tool for Auditory Brainstem Response testing where a mother can hold her child in her arms during the test, as opposed to a child having to sit at rest with electrodes stuck to his or her head, said McCreery-Scarbor. "We can use this with developmentally-delayed children, and it's allowing us to test many more children than we could have" previously.

Identifying hearing impairment in babies is extraordinarily crucial, she said. If the issue can be identified and addressed within the first six months of life, that child can enjoy the same communication outcomes as children with full hearing abilities, so "it's really essential."

The center dates back in Dalton more than 50 years, started originally so locals wouldn't have to drive to Chattanooga and/or Atlanta for these services, said Edwards, who has been at the center for nearly three decades. The center established a permanent location on Professional Boulevard in 1985 and remained there until this year's move into a building that formerly housed a 3M facility.

"It was more open space and labs" when it was 3M, she said. For the center, walls were constructed, and "we redid the inside of the building."

There's also additional green space around the building, so young patients can run around and "blow off steam," she said. "We were basically landlocked at the" former location.

"We are birth-to-death providers, from babies to, my oldest patient right now is 102," Edwards said. "We serve anybody and everybody, but what we do here, (most people) take for granted: the ability to talk and hear."

"Until you need us, you don't think about us, but don't continue to suffer in silence," she said. "Help is available, and we will do anything we can to help you communicate."

On the speech side, the center works with numerous developmentally-delayed children, she said. The center also has adult patients, many of whom struggle to communicate following strokes or other incidents.

"We're seeing more patients having strokes younger," however, Edwards said. "My youngest is 18, so it's no longer an 'old person'" affliction.

On the hearing end, "there's a lot of age-related hearing loss," McCreery-Scarbor said. "Treating hearing loss is the number one way to reduce the risk of cognitive decline, so it can make a big difference."

In order to protect hearing, it's important to wear ear plugs or ear muffs whenever "you need to raise your voice to be heard" over a din of noise, and it's pivotal to wear that ear protection correctly, too, she said.

"We work with a lot of the manufacturers in town, and they do a great job of providing ear protection to employees, but (individuals) need to wear it correctly, too, because if you don't, it's like wearing nothing at all."

The center is treating younger and younger patients for hearing loss, she said.

"We're seeing 20-year-olds with the hearing of 45-year-olds, which makes you think, 'Where are they going to be at 45, or 65?'"

If the person "next to you can hear the music coming out of your headphones (or earbuds), it's too loud," Edwards said. "If the car next to you can feel the vibrations from the music in your car, it's too loud."

The center's patients are a "pretty even split" between children and older adults, with "not as many in that 20-40 age group," although when the center does have patients in that 20-40 demographic, "it's usually because of accidents (with) head trauma," Edwards said. Fortunately, technology like the Apple iPad has made communicating much easier for those with speech struggles, no matter their age or the reason for their troubles, and "there are all kinds of apps for communication."

For example, individuals who struggle to communicate verbally can now order at restaurants with audio from a device, she said. "This gives them an independence they didn't have before."

Edwards, who has been in this profession 36 years, initially considered teaching, and while she wasn't eager to work in a classroom setting, she thoroughly enjoyed one-on-one interactions, which led her to speech pathology.

"I still love to work with my patients one-on-one," she said. "I'm over at (Hamilton Health Care System) a lot working there with patients."

McCreery-Scarbor, who joined the center roughly six months after graduating from college, has a younger sister who has special needs and has been in speech therapy her whole life, so she was familiar with this method of care.

She'd also worked with nonprofits and enjoyed it, so when a position opened at the center -- one of only three not-for-profit speech and hearing centers in the state -- "I jumped at it," she said. "I like the instant gratification of diagnosing hearing loss, getting them a hearing aid, and then seeing the results so quickly."

She's "excited" by the improvements made in hearing aids in recent years, too.

"You can use them like Bluetooth, so they're kind of lifestyle devices," she said. "You can boss it around with your phone and get it exactly how you want it."

Hearing aids "have channels that can be switched depending on the setting," from dining at restaurants to worshipping at church to watching television to having discussions with family, Edwards said. "And we can match it to your hair color so it blends in seamlessly."

More information on the center and its services can be found at loopershc.com or by calling (706) 226-4623.

"People avoid things because of" speech and/or hearing troubles, but "I'd rather they be social," Edwards said. "If you can't communicate, you're not going to want to go out, but there's no reason to sit home."

This "is your health and your life," said McCreery-Scarbor. "Don't wait too long to seek help."

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