Hearing loss advocate Shari Eberts has early onset adult hearing loss. She believes men suffer in greater silence and isolation, and offers ways to help those who may feel ashamed or alone.
I have hearing loss, as did my father, and believe me, it is not fun; but it seemed to have been a lot harder for him than it is for me. He did his best to hide it, smiling and nodding his way through conversations he was only pretending to hear. He never asked for help that I can remember, and could often be found sitting alone at social gatherings. I always thought he was shy, but now I know he must have been exhausted. He had given up on interacting with others.
Living with shame took its toll. Over time he withdrew from work, from relationships, and his health deteriorated. It is a sad story, and a scary one for me, given my own hearing loss, and the possibility that I have passed it along genetically to my children.
Part of the trouble for him may have been the times. My father grew up when men were not encouraged to show emotions. Physical weakness was mocked and health problems were hidden behind closed doors, or in the case of my father, behind his sideburns grown long for that purpose. He was a product of his generation, which certainly made things harder. Hearing aid technology was also not as advanced as today, so perhaps he grew frustrated after attempts with hearing aids that did not solve his problems.
Some of the difficulty was likely the hearing loss itself. Hearing loss is an invisible disability and is widely misunderstood. People often think of hearing loss much like nearsightedness. People assume that hearing aids restore hearing to normal, like wearing glasses allows you to see as well as anyone else. This is not the case.
Hearing aids are helpful in amplifying sounds, but this makes things louder, not necessarily crisper or clearer. Most people with hearing loss can hear that someone is talking to them, they just can’t understand what words are being said. The clarity is not there.
Hearing aids also have a tough time differentiating among sounds so that background noise (i.e., the hum of a refrigerator or air conditioner) is amplified in addition to more important sounds of conversation. This can actually make it harder to hear in certain situations.
But, a large part of the issue, for my father and other men, may have been, and continue to be, gender-related. Recent research conducted at Harvard University and Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston showed that men have a more difficult time explaining their hearing loss to others, and provided fewer suggestions to address these issues to improve communication.
While a woman might say, “My hearing is worse on the right side, please sit to my left,” a man may only offer “I have hearing issues, so please speak up.” The woman’s more specific instructions will result in better communication and is more likely to be successful for everyone involved.
Now I am a parent of a daughter and a son. Given the genetic nature of my hearing loss, I fear I may have passed it onto them. Since it is adult-onset, we won’t know for at least another fifteen years. In the meantime, I work hard to model appropriate behavior, just in case.
I became a hearing health advocate and serve on two Boards of leading hearing organizations: Hearing Loss Association Of America and Hearing Health Foundation. I write a blog about living with hearing loss and actively advocate for myself within the family group. I refuse to hide my hearing loss, I discuss it openly and give specific suggestions to others on how they can help me to hear better.
I do this all for myself, but also to model it for my children. I want both my daughter and my son to be skilled at asking for help, should they need it, and to not feel shame if they have a problem hearing.
My family has become skilled at following my suggestions, facing me when they speak and remembering not to cover their mouth with their hands so I can see their lips. Whenever I see my ten year old son size up a seating arrangement and point me to the most advantageous seat, I feel relief. I hope he will not have to experience hearing loss, but if he does, he will be a man different from my father. He will not be ashamed, he will know how to ask for help, and he won’t let hearing loss overtake his life.
Here are some additional things you can do to support the men in your life that have a hearing loss.
Encourage him to accept his hearing loss and treat it. Sometimes it is hard to accept. It took me ten years to come out of my hearing loss closet. But the quicker he accepts it,the sooner he can reengage with life. You need to accept it too, and not criticize him for it. Hearing loss is not shameful.
Experiment in different settings to determine the best ways for him to hear. Try various seating arrangements at the dinner table, or try out a few different settings on his hearing aid to see which one works best. The more he knows about his hearing loss and how to work around it, the better equipped he will be to handle different social situations. Practice builds confidence.
Understand that hearing is hard work for him. While hearing comes second nature to most people, when you have a hearing loss it requires a significant amount of concentration. Encourage him to take breaks in high communication settings so that he can maintain focus and stamina. And, be compassionate if he needs quiet down time every now and then.
Support his self-advocacy. Ask for quiet tables in restaurants and request that the music is turned down. Arrive early to social events to identify the best seating and take it. Learn about hearing assistance devices such as hearing loops and caption readers for plays and movies and use them.
Discuss his hearing loss in everyday conversation. The more his hearing issues are out in the open, the better other people can accommodate his needs. Keeping it a secret makes it shameful, which can lead to depression and withdrawal.
Encourage him to talk to others with hearing loss. This can be difficult if you don’t know people with hearing loss, but your doctor or audiologist may have some ideas. He should also look online for local chapters of hearing loss support organizations like Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA). Through HLAA I have met many wonderful new friends, all of whom have hearing loss.
Show that you value your hearing by protecting it. Teach boys (and girls too) about the importance of hearing protection. Wear earplugs at sporting events and at concerts and keep extra pairs handy to share with others. Demand that music be consumed only at safe listening levels.
Hearing loss can make life more challenging—at work, at play and everywhere in between. But when armed with an open and accepting attitude, a supportive group of friends and family, and the willingness to experiment a little, it does not need to overtake your life. If you or someone you love has hearing loss, please encourage them to seek out the help they need. Many resources are now available so that they don’t need to take on this issue alone.
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