“How’s that new hearing aid working for Jim?” I asked.
“It would work better if he actually wore it,” my friend replied.
More than half a dozen friends have recently lamented to me that their spouses can’t hear. The symptoms range from squabbles and denial to hiding a new hearing aid in a drawer. Or lamenting, “the dog ate my hearing aid.”
Weird as it sounds, there are good reasons for all these weird behaviors, both human and canine.
When I got my first hearing aid in my 30s, I wrote a rather-famous Newsweek essay titled “Hearing the Sweetest Songs” about the experience. In response, I got two potato-sack-sized bags filled with fan mail. Decades later, I still get the occasional letter; the column resonated, and it has been anthologized and reprinted many times.
As I wrote back then, the experience of being fully “abled” is temporary. As we age, most of us develop various disabilities. Presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss, has historically affected about two-thirds of Americans. (It may become even more common among baby boomers due to our youthful love of loud rock concerts.)
Having lost my hearing as a result of fevers in infancy and childhood, I’m not suffering from presbycusis. But until the microelectronics revolution, hearing aids were little more than amplifiers. They offered no help in dealing with my childhood “cookie-bite” hearing loss, which nipped out the frequencies used by human speech. This is why I didn’t get a hearing aid until after I had struggled through both college and a graduate degree.
My first few weeks with a hearing aid were torture. In my Newsweek essay, I described beginning to hear with my formerly-silent left ear: “It shattered my peace: shoes creaking, papers crackling, pencils tapping, phones ringing, refrigerators humming, people cracking knuckles, clearing throats and blowing noses!
“Cars, bikes, dogs, cats, kids all seemed to appear from nowhere and fly right at me … I felt as though inquisitorial Nazis in an old World War II film were burning the side of my head with a merciless white spotlight.” That, plus a tinny quality that reminded me of a PA in a high school gym, left me feeling “constantly startled, unnerved, agitated — exhausted.”
Fortunately, the audiologist had warned me, “You can’t simply put on a hearing aid and start to hear again. Your brain must relearn the skill of processing sound.” Neither the human cochlea nor a modern, digital hearing aid truly has the ability to filter out background noise; only the brain can do that. But left unused, the brain’s processing mechanism grows flabby. Like a couch potato preparing for ski season, the brain needs a conditioning program before it can begin to start carving out the white noise.
It took my young adult brain about a month to learn. Taking the audiologist’s advice, I adopted a phase-in schedule like those used by new contact-lens wearers; a few hours at first, half-days the second week, full days the third. After six weeks, I realized that all the shoe-squeaking and paper shuffling had disappeared. I was also gobsmacked to discover that I could no longer even detect that high-school-PA quality that had initially bothered me so.
Unfortunately, many folks never get to that point. While 95 percent of hearing loss can be treated with modern programmable, digital aids, only about 15 percent of the 48 million hard-of-hearing Americans ever get hearing aids. That’s tragic, because studies have shown that hearing loss leads to social isolation, and that in turn leads to both depression and serious declines in mental functioning.
Because I’m so often asked for advice, I have toyed with the idea of doing a free talk on learning how to use hearing aids. That would help keep hearing aids in ears, where they belong, rather than drawers, where they’re useless. And it would also keep them out of dogs’ stomachs, where they’re dangerous.
At the start of this column, I promised insights into canine as well as human behavior. So here goes: Dogs (and cats), who hear a frequency range of 40 to 60,000 Hz — far beyond the 20 and 20,000 Hz humans hear — experience a high (and possibly-painful) feedback squeal when a hearing aid has been left on and out in the open. Maybe, our pets think the shrieking aid is an annoying insect?
But unlike cats — who tend to just bat the $2,000-$5,000 device around the floor — canines usually respond by chewing or gulping down the offending hearing aid. Result: a pricey vet bill in addition to the loss of the hearing aid.
Cheap solution: Train the humans to listen to reason and save $6,000 in the process.
This column was originally published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, October 25, 2018