The classic cartoon picture of someone with hearing loss is a bent, old man with a giant ear horn held to his ear: not a pretty picture. Things have come a long way. Modern hearing aides are highly sophisticated electronic devices, some so small that they can fit into the ear canal and be virtually invisible. Some have directional microphones that can help you sort out voices that you want to hear from background noise.
Yet, most people are reluctant to wear a hearing aid. Some even buy them and don’t use them. Why is that? There are probably many reasons, but surely, one is not wanting to be perceived as “old”, and wearing a hearing aid is a little like wearing a sign saying “I’m getting old”. My hearing has decreased over time, so that I am at a point where a hearing aid would help. I can hear well if someone is speaking reasonably loud, preferably in a deeper voice and not in a noisy space. Restaurants and sometimes gatherings at home are exhausting, because of straining to hear over the background noise, and I find at times that I am letting myself drop out of conversations because it is too difficult to follow. Yet I have been reluctant to take the step of trying out a hearing aid and seeing if it helps. There is something about doing that which means giving in to old age. People will look and see this thing behind or in my ear and think “disability”.
It follows a long set of things that people do or don’t do to maintain the image of style and youth, so important in this country, including diets, dyed hair, Botox, youthful clothes and shoes that look better and feel better on a young person. I’ve decided that my more prominent belly isn’t going away no matter how many sit-ups I do, that I need roomier jeans and that foot comfort far outweighs style, but it has taken a while to get there.
This topic of course touches on something frequently discussed in this blog – ageism. Everyone has heard about how difficult it has been for older people, even with skills, to find work. More generally, we admire the person who looks younger than their age, even though they have often done nothing to earn that. Older people can become “invisible” or, worse yet, the object of derision. I heard a comedian interviewed on the radio talking about his wife’s frustration with an older woman driving in front of them. “Move over, old lady”, she said as if “old lady” were an epithet. Old lady could have been “old man”, “old geezer” or “old bag”.
My point is not an argument to stop doing things that keep one as active and youthful as possible, but rather to not let the negative images of aging become the governor, as we get older, of how we live our lives or what we do for comfort or even safety. Yes, I wish society would value older people more, particularly as I have joined that group, but attitudes, driven in large part by the fear of aging and deterioration, are unlikely to change any time soon. My point is that it is healthier to accept doing what is necessary to keep oneself functioning and comfortable than to try to live up to some image of youth.
So, how did I arrive at the point of wanting to try out a hearing aid? First, I realized that I was losing things functionally and socially. Whenever I am in a noisy space or someone was speaking softly, or too fast, I am missing enough of the high-pitched sounds to make the conversation indecipherable. If the speech was louder or slower, my brain could sometimes fill in the missing sounds, but often I was just smiling benignly and dropping out of the conversation. Additionally, there is evidence that correcting the hearing early, rather than waiting until it’s really bad, preserves the brains capacity for interpretation and perhaps lowers the risk of dementia.
That’s the factual part, but facts are not enough. I’ve had to psychologically come to peace with realizing that I am sacrificing the pleasure of hearing well to the assumption that people will think less of me with hearing aids than without. I don’t think less of people who wear them, but I have been unwilling to grant myself the same acceptance.
So, first I’ll try the hearing aid then I can get myself a walking stick so that with my decreased balance, I am safe walking on a trail. Who knows, I might even give into a safety bar in the shower. Pretty radical!