I’ve just returned from a stint of helping out at my mother-in-law’s home in New Jersey. Rose is a 100 years old, still mentally alert, but has a bad knee and her usual helpmeet, my sister-in-law, is temporarily disabled with a broken ankle. One task involved helping Rose get her bum leg up on her bed at night. Referring to my husband, she said, “I can’t ask a man to do this.” She didn’t seem to hear me when I told her, “You could ask a man, but you wouldn’t feel as comfortable with a man doing it.”

    She didn’t have her hearing aids in, so my response literally “fell on deaf ears,” an expression that usually implies the listener doesn’t want to hear the speaker, not that the listener just can’t hear. I’ve been told that deaf people, among all those with disabilities, are the most discriminated against because their disability isn’t visible. On-again, off-again communication with people who have hearing loss is frustrating. We haven’t been able to have phone conversations with Rose for years. I’m not sure why she’s been reluctant to wear her hearing aids. Perhaps they fit poorly and uncomfortably, maybe the correction was inappropriate and confusing, maybe her vanity got in the way, maybe she got them so late that her adjustment was too slow.

    Adjustment, you ask? My husband has hearing aids now, at the age of 70, and the process of acquiring them has taught us a lot. It started when I was getting irritated with having to repeat statements several times — irritated because it appeared that he was just ignoring me — but two unrelated experiences reinforced my position and led Anthony to getting hearing aids: Outdoors bird-watching, he couldn’t hear birds that I could hear chirping or singing less than 50 yards away. Then, even more telling, on a lengthy conference call, after 45 minutes listening with his left ear, he switched to his right and immediately could hear better, mirroring the results of a hearing test he’d had several years earlier.

    So we began investigating hearing aid technology, providers and costs. A new audiology test showed Anthony’s acuity had declined in both ears, but the loss was greater in the left—but still “moderate.” We encountered high-pressure sales reps with high priced hearing aids, offering giant discounts that still resulted in $4,000 price tags. I was reminded of advice from AARP: Get your hearing tested by an independent audiologist, not a person who also sells hearing aids. We learned that tests performed in sales offices often are not comprehensive. (Medicare covers the tests, but not hearing aids, glasses, or dental work; how ironic is that, given it’s a rare senior citizen who doesn’t have those needs.)

    After determining the type of aids Anthony would need, we focused on price. A neighbor suggested Costco — a retailer I’ve avoided my entire life — but we ended up joining just so Anthony could save roughly $1,500 compared with the next lowest price. I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. Their hearing aid staff doesn’t get a commission so there’s no incentive for them to pressure you into a purchase. Customer service includes many follow-up sessions to gradually adjust the aids up to optimum performance ... and for Anthony to adjust to the new inputs the aids’ amplification would provide.

    We learned that hearing is both a physiological and a brain function, so when you get hearing aids, your brain has to learn to process the new stimuli appropriately. Therefore, the longer you wait to correct your hearing loss, the longer it takes for your brain to adjust and the more irritating that process can be. Anthony found that high frequency sounds like crunching gravel and rustling paper seemed really loud at first, an example of his brain now hearing things anew. Over time, along with periodic adjustments to the devices, that contrast has diminished.

    Over time: That’s another key. A friend of ours makes her living as a sign language translator, working in schools with deaf students and signing concerts for big crowds. Kathy told us that the average time it takes for a man with hearing loss to get help is 14 years after family members start noticing the hearing loss. That’s 14 years of poor communication and potential deterioration in relationships. So, don’t wait. If your loved ones tell you there’s a problem, get tested by an audiologist; at the very least you’ll have a baseline to use later. Hearing loss is subtle and gradual. Don’t let it sneak up on you.

    Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer and knows several people in their 60s who have unconsciously learned to lip-read in response to gradual hearing loss. You can reach her at anthonyvictoria1@gmail.com.





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