A Hearing Aid: Annoying With, Without

When my father was in a nursing home many years ago, he shared a room with an elderly stroke victim whose paralytic tongue was unable to form words. While I was in their room one day, a nurse came to take my father's roommate away for a bath. He had already been given a bath by another nurse, but when he tried to convey this, the words wouldn't come out. He had been one of the largest contractors in his city, accustomed to giving orders, and now he couldn't make his most basic needs known. I'll never forget his clenched fists and the tears that formed in his eyes and coursed down his cheeks--a classic portrait of frustration.

To all active people, physical impairment is probably the most frustrating part of the aging process--especially if it inhibits communication. If mental processes atrophy, the victim is usually unaware. But the atrophy of physical skills is obvious and distressing.

The most common and most irritating--both to the victim and those around him--is loss of hearing. Other types of physical impairment--affecting sight or legs or arms--are generally regarded with compassion. But a hearing loss tends to be looked on with irritation, as if the person suffering it were somehow trying to make life difficult for others.

The moderately justifiable reason for this attitude is that mechanical devices are available to correct--or at least ameliorate--hearing problems. Therefore the people who are impatient or distracted when they have to repeat themselves at higher volume may feel that all this would be unnecessary if the hard-of-hearing would simply get past the ego problem that prevents them from being fitted for a hearing aid--or using it if they have one.

It isn't quite that simple, especially for those of us who can function without a hearing aid but can function a lot better--under most circumstances--with one. If the hearing loss is organic, a hearing aid is required to hear anything. But if the loss is a slow, gradual wearing out of whatever carries sound to the brain, then the victim can think of all sorts of very good reasons for not wearing a hearing aid.

I first became aware of the problem when I couldn't hear female students in my classroom. I ascribed it to the fact that most women--and especially students--tend to talk in a high-pitched whisper. For a while, I guessed at what they were saying and offered a lot of answers I knew were inappropriate by the furrow that appeared between their eyes. So I had my ears tested and found that I was unable to receive voices pitched in a high timbre--which most women's are. I heard men just fine. When I asked if this could be psychosomatic, the doctor said "No"--but I'm still not convinced.

So I got hearing aids. I was told both ears were impaired equally so I'd have to have a pair of the damned things. I don't think I ever had any ego problem about them--any more than using crutches for a broken leg or a Band-aid for a cut. They are simply a fact of my life. The problems I have are logistical, not cosmetic. Frequently I find them to be a pain in the ear.

Although it was carefully explained to me that I would now be hearing sounds I hadn't heard for a while and as soon as the uniqueness wore off, these new sounds would recede into the background, that simply hasn't happened. If I wear my hearing aids so I can hear my wife in the car, the wind outside sounds like an impending hurricane and the trucks passing on the other side like a squadron of tanks. If I try to carry on a conversation in a restaurant, every dish that's dropped in the kitchen sounds like a bombing attack and conversation at the other tables melds into my own talk and produces a kind of conversational sludge.

The hearing aids are quite useful and effective in a theater or classroom or listening to music or in one-on-one conversation or in small groups where there is no background noise. They are a handicap on the telephone, actually cutting off sound if I hold the receiver in a normal position; if I hold the receiver over the sound box at the top of the hearing aid, it produces a hair-raising screech. They aren't uncomfortable, but they are frequently exhausting because I find myself hearing things I don't particularly want to hear.

It has occurred to me that I've been going through a gradual hearing loss for so long that I've reconstructed a world minus certain sounds, and I now find them intrusive. I like hearing again the clear sound of a warbler's song, but I could forever do without the screeching tires of a hot dog driver or a radio blaring rock music at me at traffic stops.

I'm aware that my hearing fails a little each year, so I suppose I'll be forced to wear the hearing aids more frequently. That probably won't stop me from playing those Russian roulette guessing games with people who ask me questions I don't altogether hear.

It happens most frequently with my wife because I usually remove the hearing aids when I get home. She considers this discrimination and tends to get uptight when she reminds me that we're due somewhere in a half-hour, and I don't have any idea what she's talking about because I didn't hear the original plans a day or two earlier.

So you win some and lose some, but wearing a hearing aid selectively does add a certain element of excitement to life--which may or may not be a satisfactory reason for getting one.

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