As we have grown older, my husband and I have developed hearing problems: For me, hearing requires more effort, while he cannot hear sometimes in spite of any effort.
We both complain that young people today talk too fast or swallow their words or don't look at us when they speak. And we have difficulty in large groups where there are multiple conversations and different voices and background sounds.
I manage through paying close attention, even straining, when people speak, or relying on context to help me understand words I do not hear clearly. My husband wears hearing aids but finds that they mostly increase the volume of sounds, not the clarity. He also complains that they are irritating and uncomfortable when worn for several hours. That's why he takes them off when he's home, to "give his ears a rest." This decreases the physical strain for him, but increases the strain on our conversations: We sometimes find ourselves arguing over words that neither one of us heard right or even said!
We rarely go to movies any more because it's too difficult for both of us in different ways. He misses key words in the dialogue -- women's and children's voices are a special problem because of their high frequency -- and keeps turning to me to ask "What did they say?" If I try to answer him, I miss some of the dialogue myself and also annoy the people who are sitting nearby.
We also try to limit our group involvements ever since a recent uncomfortable experience. We were at a dinner party with some friends when someone told a funny story, and everyone was laughing in response -- except my husband. He just sat there in silence with a stricken look on his face because he could not hear the punch line.
It is estimated that about 1 out of every 10 people will experience some kind of hearing problem during the course of their lives, and that the number of people affected and the severity of their problems will increase the older they are.
It is also acknowledged that hearing loss is usually regarded with less seriousness or sympathy than other kinds of physical handicap -- and, in fact, has sometimes even been the butt of humor.
I think there may be several reasons for this.
Perhaps it is because hearing loss usually develops over time; there is no particular dramatic event that draws attention to it. Because it creeps in so slowly, friends and relatives may not realize what is happening.
Or perhaps, because the loss is gradual and invisible, people can -- and often do -- mask it or deny it. So how can people be sympathetic toward something they don't even know exists?
Or perhaps because hearing loss has become so associated with older people, it has come to be considered an acceptable part of the aging process.
But hearing loss is a genuine and serious loss, not a mere inconvenience. It means the loss of sounds of music and words of poetry or wit or wisdom -- and the loss of easy conversations and communications with others.
And it brings with it a sense of exclusion and isolation, leaving a person in a silent and lonely place.
What is needed is not so much sympathy but realistic understanding and accommodation. When you speak, you don't have to raise your voice, just speak slowly and clearly, and look at us so we can read your nonverbal communication as well as hear your words.
Check unobtrusively to see whether we are hearing you well enough, and, if not, repeat some words without fuss. Remember that we really want to hear your words as much as you want your words to be heard.
Still, my husband and I do have one advantage that others with hearing problems may not. We have been married for so long and know each other so well that, by this time, even when we can't hear each other's words, we can usually read each other's minds!
Lillian Hawthorne is a retired clinical social worker and emeritus faculty member of the School of Social Work at USC. She lives in Leisure Village, a retirement community in Camarillo.
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