One of our favorite family stories takes place at a dinner with my husband Robb, our two sons and my nephew Alex, whose wife was about to have a baby. I could tell Robb was straining to hear the conversation amid the buzz of voices and clatter of plates at the restaurant.
We were talking about the cost of college, and Alex said of his soon-to-arrive daughter, “Yeah, she’s either getting a scholarship or going to technical school.”
“What!?” Robb asked, scrunching up his eyes. “She’s getting a scholarship to grow testicles?”
There was a beat as the rest of us tried to work out if he’d really just said what we thought he’d said, then a huge explosion of laughter. If we’d had drinks in our mouths we would have all spurted them out at one time.
That was one of many times I’ve said to my husband, “You need a hearing aid!” But whenever I say that, he always follows with a “huh?” to elicit some chuckles.
No Laughing Matter
Now that we’re all wearing masks, it’s even harder to hear people.
Laughter is usually the response to these “Who’s on First?” kind of mix-ups, but in the past couple of years—as the misunderstandings have become more frequent and frustrating and we’ve started using subtitles on movies we watch in our acoustically challenging high-ceilinged living room—we’ve come to realize there’s a serious side to the slapstick nature of midlife hearing loss. I admit that I sometimes miss things or mishear words—such as thinking someone is “sick” instead of “enthusiastic.” But nothing as entertaining as Robb’s blunder.
We’re not old. I’m 59 and Robb is 57. We frantically try to beat back aging anyway we can—diet, exercise, yoga, meditation. But hearing trouble feels like incontrovertible proof we’re sliding to the far end of our calendars, which is probably why we’ve put off having our hearing tested. And we’re not alone. About 18 percent of adults in their 40s and 50s officially have “huh?” issues—and the percentage rises dramatically for those over 65. But experts think millions more of us pretend we hear the conversation at dinner—you know, nodding our heads like we’re fully engaged—but really we’re as clueless as donkeys.
But those who are hard of hearing don’t just miss out on social exchanges about a nephew’s college plans for his daughter, they also experience more strife in relationships. The old lament, “My husband never hears what I say,” actually could have a physiological cause. Many arguments caused by a seeming disregard for the other are probably the fault of ears that aren’t operating as designed. What’s more, the social isolation that comes with hearing loss can lead to depression and even Alzheimers. So it’s a much bigger issue than we think.
Of course right now is not a good time for the hearing impaired. Wearing masks, which is so important for obvious reasons, makes communication, with anyone, harder. It can be more challenging to catch words muffled by the cloth, and some of us learn that we rely more on lip reading than we ever knew.
Getting the Test
Only one in five people who need help with their hearing actually get it.
For many of us, the causes of hearing loss can be traced to jamming out at those big arena rock concerts in our early days. The baseline that made you jerk and scream with euphoria also crushed the tiny bones inside your ears. More damage can be blamed on our generally noisy boom-box-blaring, jet-airliner flying, lawnmower-using world. Still, only one in five people who need help actually get it. An astonishingly low figure when you think that people don’t get freaked out about getting their eyes checked.
Tired of endless repeating and then trying not to sound annoyed at each repetition, I decided to make an appointment with an audiologist for Robb—but told him it was for both of us, since that’s how wives have been doing this kind of thing for eons.
After the audiologist physically looked at Robb’s ears and pronounced that all looked fine, he ushered Robb into a small booth in the corner of the office. When Robb put on a headset, he looked like someone in one of those quiz shows in the 1950s. Except for the orange shag carpet that covered the exterior. That was definitely 70s’ vintage. The carpet and the noise absorbent material inside the booth were for sound proofing. I watched as the audiologist sat outside, manipulating an array of buttons and dials on a console, creating beeps of different decibel levels and frequencies in Robb’s headset. Robb would indicate with a raised finger when he heard a sound.
“It’s so quiet in there, sometimes I couldn’t tell if there was a tone or it was just my breathing,” Robb said as he came out of the booth.
My Husband Never Hears What I Say
The audiologist showed us a graph of his notes. “Your hearing is really good,” he started, which made me think Robb had found a way to cheat. “Until you get to here,” he pointed to a frequency of 3000 hertz. “And then it falls off.” The sad little line he drew dropped like a black-diamond ski slope. Generally, the frequency of normal speech, he told us, is between 300 and 6000 hertz. Robb’s hearing falls off in both ears between 3000 and 8000 hertz, which indicates he is missing a portion of high frequency sounds. Many consonant sounds come in at high frequency, meaning words like “beat” and “cheat” can’t be easily distinguished. This explained why Robb sometimes played the part of the hapless Cuthbert Calculus from the Tintin books.
But Robb wasn’t a jet mechanic or a Dead Head who attended too many concerts. What would have caused this hearing loss? we wondered. Finally, we came up with a likely suspect. Robb spent a few years clearing cedar with a chainsaw on a large piece of property, and he admitted that he only sometimes wore ear protection. Call it The Texas Chainsaw Ear Massacre.
Since Robb’s hearing loss is only in very high frequencies, the audiologist said he could probably wait to get hearing aids. Plus Robb works for himself, meaning his livelihood doesn’t depend on his hearing—just my sanity does—and as Robb says, “When I talk to myself, I can always understand.”
The Big “Huh?”
When it came time for my hearing evaluation, I found myself inexplicably nervous. I didn’t think I could stand the gloating if I was worse off than Robb. In the booth, the various beeps in my earphones started loud and became fainter—the auditory equivalent of eye charts going from large letters to teensy. Even though I strained to hear some tones coming through the headphones, the audiologist told me afterward I did well across all frequencies. My hearing loss was minimal. I gave a “sure, of course” shrug and considered a bit of gloating. (“Yeah, we see who’s aging better!”) But in the end, I opted for empathy.
“I thought it might have been both of us,” I said to Robb as we walked out to the car.
“Well now I have an excuse for missing things,” he said, smiling. “But you don’t.”
Hmmm. I thought of times when I’d feigned deafness to avoid Robb’s request to turn off the TV or feed the dogs. It’s nice to have a pass. I turned to him and said, “Huh?”
A version of this story was originally published in March 2017.