I remember when I became aware of it: My wife and I were dining with a couple we knew at a popular downtown Manhattan restaurant. The place was packed; every table was filled; and the noise level was at its peak.
I recall leaning into the table, straining to cut through the din. My friend Bruce, seated at my left elbow, was easy to hear; so was my wife at my other elbow. But from across the small table, Bruce’s wife, Barbara, was merely a series of mouth movements I absolutely couldn’t discern.
Days later, at a midtown theater, although we were sitting fairly close to the stage, a lot of the words being spoken—and punch lines being uttered—were inaudible to me. Poor actor training, I thought—not enough vocal-projection drills. And then, of course, I realized that people around us were responding heartily. Their laughter convinced me that the problem was mine, not the actors’.
I consulted my internist and was referred to a hearing specialist. The test I was given showed a significant drop at one end of the so-named audiology scale. “You should have hearing aids,” he advised. Later, he said he knew by the sour expression I flashed that I wasn’t buying that idea. Not yet, anyway.
My conception of hearing loss involved men far older than I cupping their ears in frustration or wearing clunky devices sticking out of their ears. Not so, I was advised. Hearing-assist instruments have come a long way, now being made astonishingly small and unobtrusive.
Still, I resisted the suggestion for a while but ultimately succumbed to a 90-day trial advanced by a local discount emporium and decided to give the devices a try. Reading the fine print in the contract I was asked to sign, it seemed that the deal being offered was fair, sensible and reasonable. Or so I thought.
I was assigned to a technician who, right off, had difficulty inserting the model I’d chosen and finally insisted that, to proceed, I would need to fund the crafting of devices shaped specifically to fit my narrow ear canals. The cost: several hundred dollars, which I would be asked to pay, upfront, in order to participate in the otherwise free trial.
By then, of course, I felt determined. . . to see if my quality of life really would improve once I became accustomed not only to wearing the devices but also to installing and removing them daily. I wrote a check and completed the trial, at which point concluded that the pain and discomfort associated with wearing the aids was measurably greater than any satisfaction I might gain from addressing my hearing loss. When the trial period ended, I willingly returned all the devices I’d worn, including those I had paid for.
Later, when consulting with people familiar with such products—more men than women, it seemed—each one pulling out hearing aids that I had no idea they’d been wearing. No two experiences were alike, I found. And every wearer also admitted to experiencing a different level of dissatisfaction. Hmmmn.
Then I did some research, which I probably should have done earlier, and learned that, according to recent research by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), one in eight Americans older than 12 experience hearing loss in both ears. Thus I’d become part of a measurable minority that included men my age and older, plus some considerably younger.
By that time my name was appearing on a number of mailing lists and I’d begun getting mailings. I tossed most of them, but one of them did reach out to me: It described a tiny German-made devices that would be virtually invisible and offer a whole new range of advanced hearing benefits. Another free trial was offered; I succumbed right away, particularly when I learned that one of the provider’s local service offices was but a few miles from my home.
There I met a trained consultant with a brisk approach and a sure knowledge of the issues she dealt with. Consulting the printed results of my hearing test (which the previous provider had never asked to see), she ordered devices precisely scaled to fit my ear canals and also to provide optimum utility. Once again, I was told to wear these instruments daily (but not to bed or in the shower) and to arrange to see her again near the trial period’s conclusion.
Although it was clear to me, by then, that hearing loss could occur in women as well as men, I learned that twice as many men as women would experience it and folks over age sixty were obviously the most likely.
Looking back, I recalled being part of a hapless minority when, as a seven-year-old, I needed glasses in order to view the chalkboard in my second-grade class. Yes, I endured playground taunts and nicknames (“four-eyes” was the favorite, of course), but by the time I got to college a lot of my classmates were also eyeglass wearers. Like me, they had all adjusted to this impairment, ultimately regarding it just another badge of maturity.
Being nearly invisible, of course, hearing devices were more discreet than glasses. But where eyeglass wear reliably sharpens my visual acuity, I found that hearing aids had some—forgive me—blind spots.
Dining out again with Bruce and Barbara, I could finally hear her voice, from across the table. I could also hear the roar of nearly every conversation occurring throughout the restaurant, plus the disturbing and recurring crash of soiled dishes and flatware being dropped on steel trays before being back to the kitchen. The noise was almost numbing, something I hadn’t anticipated.
I next wore the devices when my wife and I attended a concert. Big disappointment: The sound I heard was like listening to a scratchy old vinyl record. So, during intermission, I discreetly removed and pocketed the hearing aids that, by then, I’d committed to owning and had paid for in full.
Hearing movies and TV shows presented no problems. But being in crowds was unsettling. What sounds existed would blast at me unfiltered, and I had no way to temper them. (The human ear is amazingly discerning, something I’d never processed or appreciated but now bow to, in deep respect).
Do I regret having made a hearing-aid commitment? I’m not exactly sure. Some sounds are notably sharper and clearer; others are bothersome and intrusive. For example, if my wife bangs a pot in our kitchen or restacks some crockery—and I’m sitting at my desk at the far end of our apartment—I’ll probably continue to jump at every clunk and clatter.
By now, many months later, I’ve grown accustomed to wearing my devices and have little trouble installing or removing them. Have they, like my glasses, become a welcome and beneficial aspect of my daily life? I would say yes and no—and urge anyone eager to consider them to opt for a 90-day free trial and use that time fully before committing.
I’ll happily concede that the best of the hearing aids available today are, in many ways, amazing devices—small and at times incredibly powerful. But, I’m afraid they can also be, quite often, a bothersome nuisance.
* * *
A former shelter-magazine writer and editor, Mervyn Kaufman is a New York-based essayist and short-story author.
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