Who Knew the World was so Loud?

My mother couldn’t hear. My father couldn’t hear. So it’s no surprise that as I’m about to turn 68, I can’t hear as much as I used to either. Back in the day, I used to say I could hear a bee sneeze. Now I go to a meeting or a poetry reading and I miss half of what’s said. I go to a yoga class and if I’m in a posture where I can’t see the instructor, I don’t know what to do next.

My mother waited too long to get hearing aids. My father never got them. He missed so much. I’m not doing that.

Therefore, welcome to my first pair of hearing aids. They’re the fourth most expensive thing I have ever purchased, behind the house, car and my master’s degree. I have known since 2016 that I needed them. Medicare and private health insurances do not cover hearing aids, and I just didn’t have the money.

The Hearing Loss Association of America reports that 20 percent of Americans and one in three people over 65 report some degree of hearing loss. Only 20 percent of those who could benefit from hearing aids use them. On average, they wait seven years to get them. Why? Because the cost is ridiculous, and the results are less than satisfying.

The people I went to back in 2016 wouldn’t take credit or time payments and refused to accept my answer when I said I couldn’t afford it. They sent me home with loaner hearing aids. I’m sure they thought I’d be so thrilled I’d come up with the money. Those hearing aids were not programmed for me, and they came with no instructions. I wasn’t even sure I had them in right. I could hear my clothes swishing against each other, but when I went to a poetry reading, I still couldn’t hear the readers. When I tried to talk to people, it was like talking underwater. I couldn’t wait to give them back.

But I knew hearing aids were in my future. I could tell that my hearing was getting worse. Thanks to my inheritance from my father–who should have used his money on his own hearing aids–I could buy them now. Enough with nodding and pretending to hear what I couldn’t. This was a different experience. William Beaver at Miracle-Ear was understanding, supportive, and excited about what I’d be able to hear.

The first couple days were a rush of new and remembered sounds, but on Sunday, I wanted to throw them across the room. Playing and singing with the choir at church, everything was TOO LOUD, even when I turned them down. My ears itched like crazy. At home, I was annoyed by the roar of the gas fireplace, which I thought merely hummed. The ice maker dropping ice into the tray scared me. Annie’s nails clacked on the floor. Even these computer keys made little clicking noises. Clearly, hearing aids are a mixed blessing.

I like quiet. Sitting in my backyard yesterday, I loved the songs of the birds I hadn’t heard in ages. I hated the neighbor’s motorcycle and the helicopter warming up at the nearby airport. But later, when I turned on my tablet to watch a movie, I could hear it without headphones. When I turned on the TV, I could turn the sound down from 40 to 29. With nobody else living here, how would I have known if it was crazy loud? I remember how I could hear my dad’s TV clearly from the backyard and occasionally wore earplugs if I wanted to watch it with him in the living room.

I can hear the stove timer now when it shrieks. Before, I would just get a feeling it might be going off. I can hear the washing machine chugging. If someone knocks on my door, I’m thinking I’ll hear it. This is good.

Hearing aids are not like glasses, which I have worn since age 16. With my glasses on, my vision is 20/20. You cannot get 20/20 hearing. It will never be like it was when you could hear naturally. Some sounds that wouldn’t normally be loud are exaggerated. In a crowd, the clamor is confusing.

Today’s hearing aids are infinitesimally more sophisticated than those of the past. You can program them for all kinds of special sounds. We’ll be working on getting the music part right. Right now the acoustic piano is too loud, the classical guitar sounds twangy, and my voice sounds like I’m hearing myself through a microphone, which I am. I can control volume, direction and treble or bass with an app on my phone. It’s another machine to get used to, and yet another thing to plug into a charger at night, and I’m tired of machines, but I can hear what I couldn’t hear before, and that’s good.

I probably won’t wear my hearing aids to play at church next time—the music is loud, and Fr. Joseph shouts, but when I go to that next meeting, workshop or reading, I will be delighted to hear what the others hear. When I visit the family, I will be able to hear the soft-talkers as well as the ones with big voices. The next time I take a yoga class and the teacher says to close our eyes, I’ll be able to hear when she says to open them again.

I’m sad that I have lost the good hearing I used to have and will never get it back. I don’t want to deal with any of this. Getting used to my hearing aids is frustrating. But I’m grateful I can hear so many things again.

If I seemed to be ignoring you when you spoke to me, maybe I couldn’t hear you. Try me again.

I welcome your hearing aid stories and advice.

Hearing aids amplify every little cricket chirp

When I went to have my hearing checked last week, I had no idea I’d be walking out an hour later with hearing aids in both ears. I just wanted to find out if everybody was mumbling or I really couldn’t hear.IMG_20160516_140629411[1]

About 8 years ago, I had my hearing checked by the same audiologist, whom I had interviewed for the local newspaper. At the time, she saw a dip in the hearing in the right ear, but not enough to need hearing aids. A whole lot of life has happened since then. There are certain people in my life whom I just can’t hear. At the last two literary readings I attended, I couldn’t hear them read. It drove me nuts.

So into the booth I went. The doc placed heavy-duty headphones over my ears, blocking out all other sounds, then played beeps and boops at various volumes and pitches. I was supposed to say “yes” when I heard one. Often there seemed to be an echo of the sounds, and sometimes I didn’t hear anything for a long time. She followed the sounds with spoken words that got softer and softer.

A mild to moderate loss, she said afterward, pointing to a graph that shows normal hearing at about 20, mine at about 35, and 60 where it may ultimately go. Hereditary, she said. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

I sat there in shock as she told me about the types of hearing aids I could get and how much they would cost–$5,000 for two hearing aids–and oh by the way, they don’t take credit cards. Then she shifted me over to the hearing aid guy, who stuck these loaners on my ears and set about programming them. He told me about all the extra features I could buy. All the while, I heard what sounded like crickets. Part of it was my own voice whenever I said an S or a C. But eventually I realized the cricket sound I was hearing was the clicking of his computer mouse. Whoa.

I walked out into the world with new ears, the biggest part perched on the top of my ears, with little nubs inside my ears. It helped a little with hearing things I wanted to hear: voices, the TV, music on the computer, but my own voice sounded weird to me. Rustling papers, plastic bags, car keys and my dog’s tags were annoyingly loud.

When I played music, the piano and guitar sounded tinny and my singing voice sounded like I was singing into a tin can. Normally blessed with almost perfect pitch, I couldn’t hear whether I was singing the right notes or not.

Trying to talk to a friend in a crowd, I felt like I was a radio station that wasn’t quite tuned in. Plus my ears itched. Hearing aids take getting used to, I’m told. That’s an understatement.

As I walked around hearing every foot shuffle and mouse chirp, I made myself crazy trying to figure out where to get $5,000. When I talked to my dad, who at 94 has not gotten the hearing aids he most definitely needs, he said I didn’t really need them that bad. He thinks that because everything at his house is so loud my problem is hearing too much. If his next-door neighbor weren’t deaf, she could hear every word on his TV. In her house. In her garage on the other side of her house. So, no sympathy there.

The batteries on my loaner hearing aids died on Saturday night. I had hoped to use them at a meeting on Sunday. Oh well. I decided, for now, that I don’t need them. I will revisit the situation in a year. I’m still trying to grasp the news that I have a measurable hearing loss and it’s going to get worse. One shock at a time, right? Besides, most of the time, I’m at home alone where the quiet is a blessing.

I did some research on this whole hearing aid biz. A recent article in the New York Times said that nearly 30 million Americans, including two-thirds of those over 70, are said to have a hearing loss. But only 15 to 30 percent of those who would benefit from hearing aids use them. Why? Because the cost is ridiculous and rarely covered by insurance, and the results are not that satisfying.

My experience was not wasted. Now I know where I stand, hearing-wise. I also know how much I DO hear. I hear a lot. I can still hear the birds, the foghorn, the click my cellphone makes when I get a Facebook message, and my dog whimpering in her sleep when she has a nightmare. I can hear the voices of the people I love. Now that I know what’s coming, I’m grateful for every sound, even the trucks on the highway and the neighbor’s rooster crowing.

My Uncle Bob used to say his hearing aids let him hear the grass grow. Well, I listened and I didn’t hear it. I don’t think I need to.