Learning to Listen Again

Some physical decline is inevitable in old age, but I found that hearing doesn't have to be part of that loss

(Photograph by Twenty20)

I resisted it for a long time. "I can hear just fine," I told my wife. "You just need to speak up."

She walked off, irritated, shaking her head at my stubbornness (stupidity?). I knew she was right. My hearing had been progressively deteriorating for some years. I missed half of what was said to me or else drove everybody else crazy with my constant pleas of "Say again?" or "Huh?"

I cranked up the television when I was alone and was more and more dependent on closed captioning when I watched with Beverly. I was living in a muted world, and most of the time I was fine with that. What was so important to hear anyway? Perhaps if I had been more honest with myself, I would have seen that my unwillingness to deal with my hearing loss was also a symptom of an on-going depression not unrelated to my aging body and soul. Throw in more than a touch of vanity and you have the perfect package for denial.

My younger daughter patiently explained to me, one day, that my hearing loss was not just irritating to others, but also a rejection of them. I was sending the message that I didn't care to communicate with anyone, that their thoughts and concerns were of no interest to me. I sat up and took notice at that declaration—finally—and went to the local audiologist to be tested.

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Of course, the result of that testing was the finding of severe hearing loss. I was shown a chart of my range of hearing that dipped in and out of near deafness. I was surprised and not surprised. Sometimes you need the hard evidence to smack you in the jaw. The hearing specialist also explained to me that hearing loss not only impacts your day-to-day existence but also has been shown to have a noticeable effect on mental health and on preventing (or at least delaying) any onset of dementia. It made sense to me. I had been having noticeably less contact with friends and family. That had to keep my brain from functioning efficiently. Not to mention the impact on the very things that make life worth living: human contact, joy, laughter.

The next step was to get fitted with the actual devices. Today's hearing aids are very high-tech, calibrated with computers and able to assist with not just the volume of one's hearing, but also the clarity and direction of the world's sounds. I opted for the high-end hearing aids. Fortunately, I could afford the expense. (They don't come cheap. And Medicare does not pay any percentage, despite the fact that hearing loss is a major problem for the elderly, but that's a story for another day.) The devices I got fit snugly behind my ears and are not very noticeable. So much for my concerns about vanity. Once they're in place, I'm hardly aware of their physical presence.

The real shocker occurred once I started wearing them every day. A whole new world opened up—or reappeared. One I had forgotten. All the ambient sounds of life were once again in evidence: birds chirping, the ocean roaring (I mean really ROARING), the wind blowing through the trees. And there were sounds that were important to hear that I had been missing: the dinging of the microwave, the dryer signaling that it was finished, the ringing phone in my pocket, the everyday exchanges with county clerks and cashiers. And, yes, there was also a slew of sometimes irritating noises: loud voices, barking dogs, all the cacophony of city life writ large. But it was worth it. Good or bad, sounds provide the backdrop and field of our lives. Young or old, it is crucial to be engaged. The only other option is to drop out and slowly waste away. Some physical loss is inevitable in old age—dammit—but hearing doesn't have to be, in most cases, part of that loss.

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Now, once again I can have a conversation with my wife without getting frustrated or tuning out. I'm more willing to attend social events, where previously I avoided such things because once there, I found it impossible to function and would find a convenient corner to hide in until it was time to leave. I can even stream my television shows through the hearing aids, and no longer am dependent on closed captioning.

Of course, I should have done this sooner. My resistance made no sense; a lesson I need to learn over and over throughout the years. The lesson: Allow yourself to be open to the possibilities of new ideas and processes. What do you have to lose? Sometimes the solutions to problems are right there in front of you. Old age can be a drag, but it's worth doing battle with. Stay in the game. Sitting on the sidelines, even if it's quiet there, is not a healthy place to be.

Tags: aging