diner in a restaurant talking with his friend

Hearing Loss Can be Funny, Until It’s Not

Guest blogger Vern Seward shares his hearing loss journey.

I was sitting in a small cafe having breakfast the other day. As I noshed on waffles and eggs over easy, I couldn't help but notice a trio of men sitting at a table about 20 feet from me. Two of the men chatted quietly while the third, who was much older than the other two, quietly ate his breakfast.

Then suddenly I heard, "WHAT? Oh…" and the third guy starts talking loudly. Apparently, his hearing is shot, and he yells to hear himself speak. The waitress came by to freshen my coffee. Smiling, she said, "He likes to tell stories," indicating the older gentleman who was regaling his friends (and everyone else in the restaurant) with UFO tales. And so the few other patrons, including myself, simply smiled and continued what we were doing as descriptions of circular metallic spacecraft and strange ancient cave drawings depicting aliens filled the normally quiet cafe.

I chuckled to myself. I'm in my late sixties, but I don't feel it. And many tell me I don't look it, even with the obvious grey beard and thinning grey hair. When I see others my age, I often think of them as old. These are the cane–toting, bespectacled, hobbling, shuffling oldsters who exemplify the term 'seniors'. I realize there are many my age who don't look or act old, but they are harder to spot. I mention this because, as I chuckled at the older guy shouting out his stories, I had to catch myself when I realized that that could have been me — and likely was me before I got my hearing aids.

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photo credit: Vern Seward

Hearing is such an integral part of our daily lives that the loss of it, even to a minor extent, can affect us in ways we don't realize. When I started finding it harder to understand people without constantly asking, "What?" with increasing loudness, it became easier to retreat and be alone. I'd lose myself in music (played loudly through headphones, which likely damaged my hearing even more), reading, or going on long walks by myself. And I'd justify my isolation by blaming others who always seemed to be whispering and making me feel like I wasn't part of the conversation, as if I were trying to eavesdrop. If my friends joked about my difficulty to hear or understand what was said, that would only drive me away even more.

It wasn't until an interaction with my father that I started seeing what was really going on. My father was visiting me, and I noticed that he either didn't hear me when I was talking to him or often misunderstood what was being said. He was far more quiet than I recalled him being when I was younger. Fortunately, I was able to convince him to let me take him to an audiologist. Sure enough, he was operating with a 60% hearing loss. We got him hearing aids which he hated because they would whistle and screech if he didn't put them in properly, but wore them anyway because they did help him hear better. This was back when analog hearing aids were still popular and comparatively less expensive (meaning, I could afford them) than the newfangled digital models. Seeing how my father reengaged with the world after getting hearing aids made me start to seriously consider my waning ability to hear and my waxing need to isolate myself.

Still, it took me several more years to overcome the stigma associated with wearing hearing aids. I didn't want to appear to be old or an invalid, especially since I was only in my late 40s. I remembered seeing kids at school when I was young who wore these horrendously awkward-looking plugs in their ears with wires attached to a device that looked like a poorly made transistor radio. Those were the state of hearing aids back then. But to me, they screamed 'handicapped'! And though hearing aids had gotten a lot smaller, the stigma surrounding them, in my mind at least, persisted. I wasn't handicapped! I didn't need some silly device to help me hear.

I was also put off by the high cost of hearing aids. I could afford it, but I reasoned that several thousand dollars for something I only kind of, sort of, needed was just too much money. Plus, I was sure I could get by without them. That only shows that hearing loss is also an insidious thing. More often than not, it's the slow decline over time in how well we hear that makes it even harder to realize that our hearing just isn't what it used to be.

I was sitting in a meeting at work when I finally realized how hard I was struggling to understand what was being said. I could hear the person speaking well enough, but I often couldn't make out the words. I later learned that it was because my ears and brain had stopped recognizing certain sounds like "sss," "sh," "ch," and "st". It's surprising how many words include those sounds. "Stop standing there" sounded like "op anding there," which made no sense to me. At that point, I knew that I needed to swallow my pride, open my wallet, and get help. Today, I can afford a decent set of hearing aids, not the full-featured models that can cost over US$8,000.00 a pair. The ones I have are pretty basic, but they get the job done. They are a pain to use and maintain, but life without them would be very lonely indeed. And I know there are millions who just can't afford even the few thousand I paid for decent hearing aids, but that is slowly changing.

The FDA is in the process of approving a new category of hearing aids that people can buy without seeing an audiologist. These new devices will be much less expensive and bought over the counter. In fact, Bose, the folks who make speaker systems, has released a set that are fairly basic in features but can help those with mild to moderate hearing loss and can be purchased for less than US$1,000.00 a pair.

Additionally, many of the true-wireless headsets from an increasing number of manufacturers have features allowing them to act as a relatively inexpensive set of hearing aids. AirPods Pro from Apple, for instance, have an amplified 'transparency' mode which will amplify sounds around you. Apple will even let you tune AirPods Pro to your specific hearing spectrum. Those with mild hearing loss might find this a perfect solution. Couple AirPods Pro with the device from Noopl, which further amplifies and isolates voices in a noisy environment, and you'd have a very good hearing solution for around US$500.00.

Let's go back to the older guy in the restaurant. Judging from how loudly he talked, I'd guess his hearing loss was significant and might be helped only by true (and somewhat costly) hearing aids. But for the rest of us, there are options available to help keep us in the game. If you think that your hearing isn't what it used to be, don't ignore it. If you can't afford prescription aids, then investigate the increasing number of less expensive options. You'd be surprised the difference even a pair of AirPods Pro, and Noopl can make in the quality of your life.

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