For at least the last decade, my partner Jodi and I have been yelling at each other from opposite ends of the house. This isn’t the result of an ongoing fight ending in a standoff—although it does often result in some strong irritation. Instead, it is her effort to speak loudly enough for me to hear her and my attempt at pretending I don’t need hearing aids.
I honestly believed the latter until about five years ago, when I asked casually one evening, “Isn’t it weird that you can hear the electricity in the house?” She looked at my quizzically and I described the low hum I hear all day every day. Within a week, I was having my hearing tested.
I knew it was time—despite dreadful images in my head of me holding up a large ear trumpet in order to talk with friends.
Although the results said I had tinnitus and “mild to moderate” hearing loss, I didn’t take any of that too seriously. From everything I’d read, the tinnitus was a common result of aging, and “mild” and “moderate” were not strong enough words to convince me that I needed any special treatment or gadget to help me keep up. In other words, I ignored the whole thing for a couple of years.
Jodi, however, mentioned it occasionally. She was tired, I’m sure, of having to repeat herself countless times a day or emphatically shouting phrases like, “I think we need toothpaste.” Finally, I had another hearing test. The results still fell within the same ranges, but the squiggly graph line was closer to the moderate end of things. A few days after the appointment, my doctor emailed me a list of audiologists I could visit to begin the process of getting fitted for hearing aids. I knew it was time—despite dreadful images in my head of me holding up a large ear trumpet in order to engage in conversation with friends.
Hearing Aids: The First Attempt
Jodi went with me to the appointment and asked lots of questions, which activated my need to “get an A” and essentially “do the right thing.” I knew I couldn’t just say I wasn’t ready yet if she was there with me. So, when the doctor showed me a sampling of different kinds of hearing aids, among them one that went fully into the ear canal, I was ready to do it. This way, no one could see them, and no one would know how old and feeble I’d really become.
When the doctor showed me a sampling of different kinds of hearing aids, I was ready to do it. Except . . .
The doctor was ready to put them in until she noticed that my ears needed more cleaning. She gave me supplies to do that at home, and we made an appointment for the next week to have the hearing aids installed.
Thank goodness for waxy ears. I say this because it gave me time to really think about the process and do some research. I learned quickly that I couldn’t take those internal aids out on my own if I needed to and that I couldn’t go swimming if they were in. It’s not that I’m an Olympic freestyler, but I realized I hadn’t asked enough questions or learned enough to result in a good and economical decision. I emailed the doctor to cancel my upcoming appointment, and then I ignored the situation for another year.
Not Keeping Up with the Conversation
The next summer, vacationing with friends in a large, old house, I realized that I really couldn’t hear the two softest-talking people who were with us. I mean, I knew they were speaking, but I had trouble taking in all of what they were saying. I found myself trying to piece it together while someone else spoke, putting me perpetually behind in the conversation. I was beginning to understand the bigger problem, and why everything I’d read about hearing aids emphasized their role in keeping the wearer engaged socially and preventing cognitive decline. When we returned from vacation, I made another audiologist appointment, this time with someone referred to me by two people I knew—one who had started wearing hearing aids herself and another whose mom had them.
Everything I’d read about hearing aids emphasized their role in keeping the wearer engaged socially.
The experience was entirely different. The doctor had the results of my previous test, but she ran another. She showed me the changes that had occurred in one year and sat and talked with me and Jodi for a long time about what I was looking for and the different things various brands could do. We both immediately liked her. What helped most was that she took her time with me.
She gave me one pair to try for a couple of weeks and then another when that time was up. At each visit, she showed me the computer readout of what my ears and brain were doing with the different aids. She even played us a recording of a person speaking—first so we could hear it as I might with hearing aids, and then without. The difference was palpable. Neither Jodi nor I could imagine how I’d managed to go so long without hearing aids.
Not to oversell them, but my hearing immediately improved—substantially. Even the tinnitus was lessened. I learned to control the hearing aids with my cell phone, and I quickly got over the discomfort of having something stuck in my ears all day. It’s like wearing glasses or a watch. It’s nice to take them off at the end of the day, but it’s super helpful when I have them on. And, it absolutely improves the quality of my life.
I have no idea if people notice my hearing aids and are just too polite to mention them, but I don’t care.
I knew that was true during the first week I had them. I was out for a run with a friend I’ve run the same route with for years. “Wow,” I said, when we got to an open area in the nearby greenbelt. “The birds are really talking to each other this morning.” She looked at me a little surprised, I could tell. “Have you not ever heard that before?” she asked. “Because it’s like this every time we run.”
Now, nearly a year later, I couldn’t be happier. I have no idea if people notice my hearing aids and are just too polite to mention them, but I don’t care. And, I’ve gotten over announcing it to everyone I talk with. At first, I found myself saying, “Look, I got hearing aids,” to practically everyone I knew. They were polite about them but frankly not that interested. I did tell my regular doctor, because she’d given me the original referral. She congratulated me, and then asked me who I’d seen because she was trying to talk her husband into going and he’d been resisting, as I had.
I know a lot of people put off taking the step—I certainly did. Even now, when more over-the-counter, less expensive hearing aids are available, I don’t think it’s as meaningful until you’re truly ready. But when you are, it’s amazing. I feel like I can even hear myself better. I also learned a big lesson: At this end of life, my ego shouldn’t get a vote in what I do to improve my circumstances. The hearing aids have actually silenced her voice, and for that I’m very grateful.