One of them could be you.
“Blindness separates us from things, but deafness separates us from people.” --Helen Keller
The author is not a medical professional. The following is based on her personal experience and research into the subject. Those who believe they may be experiencing hearing loss should consult a doctor or hearing loss clinic.
Something crept up on me during the pandemic lockdown, and it wasn't COVID (I got that later). It is a condition shared by others, and, like many of those, I was in denial about what was happening to me. Here's how I came to discover that I had tip-toed unknowingly into the ranks of those with disabling hearing loss while nobody was listening.
Zoom and doom at the book club meeting
"Denise, you're rude!"
"You're talking over her."
"Yes, you've been doing it for a while now. How about giving the rest of us a chance to talk?"
I was stunned.
It was humiliating being scolded like a child in front of the other book club members, and I felt it was terribly unjust. Due to the pandemic, we had started meeting via Zoom, and I wasn't yet familiar with how it worked. I attributed my inability to tell when someone else started talking to a technological issue. Furious with this woman's attack, I quit the club and dismissed the incident.
Something rings a bell
About a year later, I was having a blast rehearsing a play. Finally, I'd found people with whom I clicked. I hadn't made any friends in the four years I'd been living in my new city and was ecstatic to meet some kindred spirits. Nobody in this group thought I was rude, so there, you book club bleaters!
However, I did start to notice something. At the end of each rehearsal, the actors gathered on the stage for notes from the director and discussed certain aspects of the show. It was a lively group; sometimes, two or three conversations occurred simultaneously.
Unfortunately, when this happened, I got lost. I couldn't pick out what others were saying when more than one person in the room was talking. It was like being in a bar where the music is so loud you can't hear what someone next to you whispers in your ear.
Another thing I noticed is that, at home, when a television show played background music over the dialogue, I couldn't always make out what was going on. So I began turning on the closed captioning. I didn't think much of it. I watch a lot of British programs where the accents can be challenging to understand. A number of my friends do the same thing. (But you know, denial, it ain't just a river in Egypt. I'd been watching British TV for decades without a problem before.)
It wasn't until I spoke to one of my four older sisters that I learned that one of the others used hearing aids. When I asked her about her hearing loss, her symptoms were almost identical to mine.
So I made an appointment with my doctor for a hearing test. In preparation, I used over-the-counter eardrops to clean the wax out of my ears. I thought maybe that's all it was.
At the doctor's office
When the doctor examined me, he noticed that there was still quite a bit of wax in my ears, and he used a machine (which I did not look at) to remove it. Finally, I was beginning to think everything was okay. The hearing test, I decided, would only be a formality. However, my cheerful little denial bubble burst when I got into the isolation booth.
The technician asked me to repeat some words that came through a set of headphones, then raise my hand when I heard a series of beeps. I could hear most of the words, although I wasn’t sure I repeated them correctly. When we did the beeps, there were several places where the pauses between beeps were uncomfortably long. I started to hyperventilate a little.
When the test was over, the technician showed me the results. My ability to hear lower tones is close to normal, but higher frequencies present a problem. This explains why I have no trouble understanding what my baritone-voiced husband says but find most women's voices more challenging to decipher.
When I spoke to the doctor about the results, he told me that my hearing loss was significant. I was stunned. He set me up for an educational session where I'd learn about the various options for correcting my hearing.
I didn't take the news that I needed hearing aids well. Let's say many tissues got soggy that day.
The ugly, low-tech boxes that hung around hard-of-hearing people's necks in my youth were looming large in my mind. When I was a kid, deaf jokes were a staple with standup comedians in movies and on TV. From there, they lept into the mouths of babes at my elementary and high schools. The message was clear: if you're hard of hearing, people will find you either irritating or hilarious—even the ones who are polite to your face.
I recalled my frustration of repeating myself to my grandmother and father as his hearing worsened. I didn't want to be like them, old fossils who tried others' patience.
But I also knew that putting off doing something about it wasn't the answer. Here are some statistics from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders:
- Age is the strongest predictor of hearing loss among adults aged 20–69, with the most significant hearing loss in the 60 to 69 age group.
- Men are almost twice as likely as women to have hearing loss among adults aged 20–69.
- Nearly 25 percent of those aged 65 to 74 and 50 percent 75 and older have disabling hearing loss.
- About 28.8 million U.S. adults could benefit from using hearing aids.
- Among adults aged 70 and older with hearing loss who could benefit from hearing aids, fewer than one in three (30 percent) has ever used them. Even fewer adults aged 20 to 69 (approximately 16 percent) who could benefit from wearing hearing aids do.
Why acting early is so important
Nobody thinks about Medicare until they have to sign up for it. I'm nearly eligible, but although I've meant to, I haven't done much research into what Medicare benefits I can expect. Luckily, my sister alerted me to one significant fact: Medicare does not cover hearing aids. So, if you're waiting for Medicare to pick up the tab, you're probably going to be disappointed.
Currently, I'm on the excellent health insurance plan that's one of my husband's job benefits, but shockingly, few medical insurance plans cover hearing aids. Ours provides some coverage, but the out-of-pocket cost is still high. We can, however, put money aside in the Flexible Spending Account (FSA) my husband has through work. That will give me a reserve of pretax dollars for aids, batteries, and maintenance.
NOTE: Some federal workers and veterans, and residents of Arkansas, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, may be eligible for hearing aid coverage.
According to Consumer Reports,
"Evidence is mounting that untreated hearing loss is a significant national health concern, and studies have linked it with other serious health problems, including depression, a decline in memory and concentration, and perhaps even dementia."
Points to ponder
- Most people with hearing loss require two hearing aids, one for each ear. Unfortunately, these can cost thousands of dollars each. So it's best to assume you'll need them at some point and plan that as part of your retirement budget.
- Hearing loss can significantly impact your quality of life. It can also, as in my case, cause issues in social situations.
- Once your hearing is damaged, you can't repair it, but it can always get worse. So protect yourself by avoiding loud noises. Earplugs or noise-canceling headphones may be required in extreme situations.
- Our five senses are essential to contact and integration with the world around us. Most people wouldn't think of depriving themselves of the benefits of glasses or contact lenses if needed. However, hearing aids are just as important.
- No matter your age, I advise you to have your hearing tested once you have the slightest hint that something may be wrong. Remember, your financial situation may make it more difficult to afford hearing aids once you're on a fixed income, so don't wait.
- In October of last year, thanks to an all-too-rare bi-partisan effort, The White House made this announcement. They posted it on Twitter at 11:17 am, Oct 17, 2022:
"Starting today: Americans can buy hearing aids over the counter, without a prescription or exam. This will lower the price of a pair by nearly $3,000 – providing more breathing room for an estimated 30 million Americans."
I got my first hearing aid before the over-the-counter ones were available. Mostly, I use it in situations where my hearing loss is an issue. (I can also turn it down when I don't want to hear something--bonus!) I may try one of the new lower-cost, over-the-counter models for the other ear.
It was a shock to realize that my hearing ability had been so significantly impaired, but I'm fortunate to have access to hearing aids. Since I got mine, many more Americans can now afford to get help. Hopefully, one day, everyone who needs a hearing aid will be able to get one.
In the meantime, take the doctors' advice: get tested and take precautions with your hearing. For example, wearing earplugs to a rock concert now isn't nearly as awkward as asking your blind date where you can charge your hearing aid later.