Saturday, October 20, 2012

Can I Hear You Now?

I might not have heard him word for word, but I could hear the edge in my husband Bob's voice this summer as he struggled to convince me to get medical help for my increasingly noticeable hearing loss.

It has become a major issue in the last few months, but, truth be told, I've struggled to hear in my left ear for some years.

My first memory of hearing loss was one of panic. I was hooked to a live feed for The Today Show. While I usually did these shows in the studio in New York, I was a last minute addition on this particular day -- called to be the voice of reason between a minister and a television producer in a heated discussion of the influence of television on teen violence, particularly school shootings. I sat alone, except for the camera operator, at 4:30 a.m. Pacific time in the NBC studios in Burbank. I was staring into the camera, with no visible monitor, linked to Matt Lauer only with an earpiece in my left ear.

The interview was going fine -- though it was a little hard to hear him -- when I suddenly realized that I couldn't hear his last question at all. Frantically, I improvised and made a point that was, thankfully, on target with the conversation. My demeanor remained calm. But inside, I was shaken by the fact that, for a moment, I couldn't hear or understand -- on live television.

Then, during the next few years, answering the phone gradually became a challenge if I put the receiver to my left ear. Not to worry. I just talked on the phone using my right ear.

Later, there were jokes about not hearing well when someone spoke to me on my left side or about misunderstanding a comment or not hearing a greeting.

Recently, the hearing loss has been much more pronounced. Without always realizing I'm doing it, I've been guessing at what others were saying and responding accordingly. I've had some strange looks from friends and neighbors and increasingly urgent pleas from my husband to get my hearing tested.

Then one day we read a newspaper article about untreated hearing loss possibly leading to cognitive deficits. Suddenly frightened, I wondered if I might be losing my mind as well as my hearing.

I rushed to my doctor. After a few minutes of conversation, she smiled. "Well, I'd say you're in great shape cognitively," she said at last. "But you do appear to have some hearing loss. Did you notice that I've had to repeat myself several times here?"

I hadn't noticed.

She referred me to an audiologist. Several hours and many tests later, the verdict was in: I had a severe hearing loss in the left ear and a moderate hearing loss in my right ear. "You've been compensating with your right ear for a long time," the audiologist told me cheerfully. "But now that you're losing your hearing in your good ear, the overall loss is so much more noticeable."

A subsequent MRI of my brain and a CT scan of my temporal bones revealed no tumors but a relatively rare inner ear condition called superior semicircular canal dehiscence syndrome that is involves an abnormally thin or even absence of a temporal bone. It can lead not only to hearing loss but also to balance problems.

After an ear specialist recommended hearing aids for both ears, the audiologist began fitting me with a pair deemed appropriate for my type of hearing loss.

Bob asked her the price. I couldn't hear her reply. So I guessed. "Did she say two hearing aids would cost $1,000?" I asked Bob quietly.  He shook his head and leaned in to my right ear.

"$8,000 for both," he said.

For a moment, I was more stunned by the price -- not covered by Medicare -- than I was by my need for the hearing aids.

I've had them for two weeks now. They're barely detectable and they do help. The proof of their necessity came at a birthday party last week.

I was eager to try them out at my neighbor Wally's 75th birthday party in a crowded, noisy restaurant. Background noise has played havoc with my being able to follow conversations in the past year.

I remembered the excruciating embarrassment of not understanding or following conversations at a political rally I attended with my friends Tom and Ruth a few months ago.

I remembered withdrawing during large social events at the community center and starting to avoid them altogether because I couldn't understand a word being said.

This time would be different.

As I walked into the restaurant, I heard a series of beeps. Oh, no! My hearing aid batteries were low! But the aids were still working. I sat down at the table, confident that I would be able to follow the conversation.

I watched Wally enjoying time with his two wonderful adult children -- beautiful daughter Kathleen, a business executive, and son Paul who, besides being charming and successful, has been profoundly deaf since birth. I watched with warm wonder as Wally spoke aloud and also signed for his son -- and as Paul, Kathleen and her husband Mike, signed back and forth with ease and delight.

Then Wally asked me a question just as I heard the musical sign-off of my hearing aid batteries. Still confident, I answered enthusiastically and at length. When I had finished, smiling with satisfaction, Wally's wife Phyllis, who was sitting beside me, leaned over and said loudly into my right ear: "That's all very interesting, Kathy. But that's not what he asked you."

My cheeks burned. I laughed awkwardly and made a joke about needing to learn sign language, too.

But it was a major wake-up call: I've had to accept the fact that I really do have a major hearing loss and those hearing aids are as vital to me now as my glasses.

It's another landmark in the losses of aging.

 I remember my horror some years ago when my college friend Jane told me she was now wearing bifocals -- at the age of 42! And how much older I felt, at 47, when I got reading glasses for the first time. Now I wear glasses all the time.

Now this.

Part of me is grateful that hearing aids exist and that, despite my initial shock at the price, we could afford to pay for them.

And part of me is mourning the diminishment of yet another valued sense and feeling just a bit more elderly as I put them over and into my ears each morning.

O.K. I said it. I'm elderly. But I still feel so vividly alive. My vision and hearing may need some assistance, but reading for hours or gazing with wonder at the endless vistas of Arizona skies or at a loved one's face or listening with pleasure to favorite music or funny podcasts, the soft purr of a kitten,  the stillness of a desert night or the voice of someone dear are all still treasured moments in my daily life.


  1. I'm so sorry you've had to walk this journey with your hearing, and I'm glad you've been able to get some help with hearing aids.

    I've had 100% deafness in my right ear since birth, and about 25% loss in my left ear. I've been able to function well without most people knowing as long as I can see people's mouths when they speak. My kind of deafness can't be helped with hearing aids.

    I know well the discomfort and embarrassment you speak of. There are some people who are patient and kind, and some who aren't.

    Your last paragraph is amazingly beautiful.

  2. I'm glad you've been persuaded to do something about your hearing loss, Kathy, though I'm sorry it's necessary. I've been very short-sighted since childhood, so wearing glasses has no significance with regard to aging for me. But I now have pulsar tinnitus in both ears (left one worse) and know that I no longer hear everything I should. I'm still coping at the moment, but the day I have to get hearing aids can't be very far in the future. I just try to be grateful that there are such things and we don't have to sink into silence as our ancestors did.

  3. One of those things I will put on my list of things to do before the spouse retires and we no longer have double coverage is to get my hearing checked.

  4. Oh my goodness, do I relate to this. My husband and I go to Arizona in the winter to live in an RV resort that is 55+. I call it the land of the loud talkers. I have hearing aids but cannot wear them when I am there. The noise just kills me. sigh!


  5. I have spent the better part of this evening reading and reading and reading some more of you post.
    First I want to say thank you for stopping by and your wonderful comment. I really did love that.
    Second, my goodness woman, are you full of information that I see will become very helpful as Mike graduates and gets married and we retire and grow older.
    I haven't joined a site in a while but I did yours tonight.
    I wish you the most blessed weekend!

  6. Hurrah for you! I'm so proud of you for taking this step. Hearing aids are worth every penny you spend on them when they are good ones who work like yours do.

    One of my dearest friends has started a company where she helps those with hearing loss. If you have facebook, check her out at "Hear Gear."

  7. As the spouse of a person with hearing loss (and who is in denial), I want to say how much this has probably meant to your husband! It's true that it feels depressing to need the glasses, the dental work, the hypertension medication, the hearing aids - but the choice is ours how we approach these, whether we embrace them or grudgingly put up with them. You'll adapt quickly, I think :)

  8. I heard that hearing aids have improved immensely, and most good ones are hardly visible. The cost, however, seems so out of bounds for most people. What are most seniors supposed to do if they can't afford the devices?

    This post is another wake-up call.

  9. Hi, Your post makes me think that I should have my hearing tested because at times I have problems hearing what people are saying. As for glasses, I have worn them since I was a senior in high school. They are the first thing that I put on of a morning and the last thing I take off at night. It truly makes think as we age. Have a great week. Your Missouri Friend.

  10. Who said that elderly and vividly alive are mutually exclusive?
    Beloved is going to collect his first hearing aid next week. I’ll be very pleased when I don’t have to repeat everything three times any more.

  11. Dear Kathy,losing one's hearing is hard at first. Truly hard. I lost the hearing in my left ear as a result of Meniere's. And a hearing aid is not an option. But my right ear continues to do well.

    I've learned where to sit in a restaurant so as to cut back on the noise and to hear the people at the table better. I've learned always to walk on the left side of people. And where to sit in an auditorium so I can hear the person next to me.

    But if a person on my left speaks, I have no idea--none--what that person is saying. I've probably smiled and nodded wisely so many time at something serious and debatable! You, too, will get used to this and will I hope cease to worry about your cognitive ability. Just please, be patient with yourself. Peace.

    PS: noise at parties can be so difficult to deal with that I tire easily and go home after about two hours. I hope you will be good to yourself also and not stress yourself out trying to hear and trying to hear and finally just sort of collapsing inside. Peace.

  12. ah yes, I have walked this journey with my mom and I know that it is also my journey.

    So many losses. Hearing is just one, but thankfully there is an aid that can help with hearing loss. So many other losses ... no aid is there. My mom is 86 and lives in assisted living now (after 5 years of living with me), and she has hearing aids. It was my idea to get them and it was a hard sell at the time, but now she can't do without them.

    It is my future as well. I have learned so much about what it means to grow older ... just by watching her.

  13. Oh Kathy.....this post really stuck home with me. What is the old quote "growing old ain't for sissies.". You have a wonderful attitude and zest for life.....just be sure and replace batteries when matter WHERE they are needed!!! LOL LOL LOL



  14. OH dear another reason I have not been myself lately is the realization of what you wrote about here. So many things start failing us as we grow older and I have been thinking of how much everything cost to help us live a better life.
    Thank goodness you were able to purchase these hearing aids and that they are helping. Just keep them charged. haha
    I think honey I may need you to be my doctor in the coming years because I see myself already not coping well with all these changes. lol
    Take care and glad I came by for a visit tonight.

  15. As someone noted above, your last paragraph says it all. Although I would not consider you elderly--rather mature! "Feeling vividly alive" is the key. The difference between you and someone half your age is they don't have the wisdom to feel vividly alive. They just take it for granted. As long as you continue to feel vividly alive, you ain't elderly!

  16. Your blogs are so meaningful. While I am not yet experiencing hearing loss, my right knee and left hip have recently failed me! It is SO frustrating to have my body do this to me while my mind is still quite capable of doing all the physical activity I desire.
    Thanks Kathy!

  17. LOL... The Man and I don't hear like we used ta... and often we're having totally separate conversations about what we THINK we're hearing and responding to!

    Dawn... The Bohemian