“Do you want me to take out the trash?” asked my husband.
“No, that’s OK. I have plenty of cash,” I answered, channeling Abbott and Costello.
“Why is the TV so loud?” winces my six-year-old grandson.
Jeez, my face hurts from smiling through dinner, I think as I nod through the wall of sound in the loud crowded restaurant. I’m hoping no one asked a question to which a smile and a nod would be an inappropriate response.
Denial has always been my defense mechanism of choice. Not hearing some stuff was like forgetting someone’s name…or where I put my keys…a universal once-in-a-while affliction to commiserate over or laugh about in birthday cards. After all, I had no problem when I taught…or spoke face to face with a friend. So I changed ears when I spoke on the phone, not quite the handicap. And it was only a few times a year I grew frustrated spending hundreds of dollars to attend the theater, only to miss 30% of the conversation. And how hard is it to rewind the TV remote to listen more carefully to some missed dialog?
Getting glasses at 40 was no problem. I accepted the wear and tear of aging on my eyes. But the stigma of a whistling, buzzing beeping hearing aid? That felt more like a walking-with-a-cane device. No matter that three of my friends, all men, without the benefit of hair covering their ears, wore tiny, hardly visible devices. No matter that I told myself my hearing loss must have come from sitting under the speakers in my spinning class for 10 years…or too many rock concerts …or living too close to JFK airport during my childhood…. it took me almost five years to listen to my inner self, overcome my reticence and get with the program.
Sigh. Time to admit I am one of 26.7 million Americans over 50 who suffer from hearing loss. One of the 80% who needs a hearing aid but because of vanity…or cost …or fear of facing mortality…refuses to address the issue.
“Hearing aids delay the progression of further hearing loss,” explained the audiologist. Even my ears heard the alarms ring as she continued. The problem wasn’t a volume problem, she said, but a clarity problem and my brain was working way too hard to comprehend the fuzzy words hurled at me. My brain was the center of sharing and listening, not my ears. To interpret sounds correctly, the information my brain receives must be as accurate and detailed as possible. And that was never going to happen without help.
I was relieved to learn no complicated book of instructions came with my new hearing aids. Once they went in in the morning, they required none of the frantic channel adjusting I’d dreaded. Easy once a week battery changing was the extent of maintenance. And getting them in and out of my ears took a minute to master. My resistance…and anxiety… began to evaporate.
As I left the hearing center and turned toward the expressway I heard my directional signal clicking strong and purposeful, like never before. I made my way to Bounce U for a birthday party attended by 40 six year olds… and was able to hold a conversation. Now I notice the pages rustle when I read Newsday… and the Poland Spring water cooler hum. My dishwasher sounds like it cleans more aggressively and for the first time in years I hear the town water tower across the street from my house quietly do its job.
Are these differences life changing? No. Does what I hear sound totally natural? No. There is nothing natural about asking an electronic device to replicate the workings of one of the most complex organs in the human body. But are the small improvements life enhancing? A resounding yes.
In the weeks since, I’ve read that because the ear plays a role in balance, even mild hearing loss can triple the risk of falling. And a Journal of the Medical Association report suggested mild hearing loss is linked to a doubling of dementia risk, and moderate hearing loss can triple it. But the sweetest confirmation of my decision came when my friend Susan shared a wrote a note to her husband when he got his hearing aids. The last line said, “Those around you see a person wise enough, secure enough and good looking enough to want to hear all the good noises yet to come.”