I had breakfast in the bath this morning, which is something I haven’t done very often since moving to our current home twelve years ago. This is partly because we now have an adequate shower and partly because we no longer live in a house with bathroom and kitchen on the same level, which made the process of making breakfast while the bath was running a less risky affair. Anyway, whatever; it triggered memories of that former house and former times and, as I lowered my head under the surface and my ears filled up with water it triggered another reminder. I have been a hearing-aid user for fifteen years.
This is probably not an anniversary I expect to celebrate, but it is worthy of some thought and reflection. I was fifty when I acquired my first analogue hearing aid having requested a hearing check earlier that year. Unusually (I think) I was one of those people who became aware of my hearing loss before other people started insisting. My father gradually lost his hearing as he got older and I had strong memories of the period before he succumbed to testing while he insisted that we had all started mumbling.
A lot of people are familiar with the process of having spectacles prescribed and the process of the optician flipping lenses asking which one is better. Sight correction is a careful and precise art – hearing correction is less so. The process has been improved by digital hearing aids which can be adjusted to some extent to accommodate the type of hearing loss, but basically a hearing aid is a small loudspeaker positioned behind the ear with a plastic ear-mould inside the ear. It can take a very long time to get used to a first hearing aid. To start with the sensation of having a large foreign object in the ear is very pronounced. It feels like having a bad head cold and can make you feel as if your nose is blocked as well as your ears. Then the sounds it amplifies are unfiltered by the brain. Going out from the hushed hearing aid clinic into a busy street feels like a sensory assault and flushing the loo sounds like a waterfall being unleashed from a dam. In the first year of having my hearing aid I frequently felt so desperate that I took it out and felt it wasn’t helping. It took a talking-to from one of the audiologists at the clinic to make me persevere with wearing the aid all the time and really start to get the benefit from it.
I now have two digital hearing aids which are programmed to my particular hearing loss, which also have special settings to cope with noisy environments and for listening via loop systems. I am well used to wearing them from the time I get up until I settle down to sleep at night, but they are not without their problems and difficulties. Batteries don’t last very long and frequently give up the ghost at inconvenient moments. Plastic tubing pops out of place and is difficult to realign. An enthusiastic hug from a friend can cause shrill feedback if my ear is covered. I try not to think about the time I sleepily removed my hearing aids at night and carefully dropped them into my water glass – not realising until the morning that they had been immersed in water all night.
The simple fact is that hearing aids don’t replace normal hearing. Even with the amplification of my aids I need the television louder than other people. Clarity is lost and I frequently mishear or fail to understand what people say. I can’t join in desultory chat amongst a group of people making conversation across a room; I can’t “earwig” on conversations in buses and cafes; I have more or less given up trying to listen to my beloved Radio 4 and hardly ever click on video or music links on the computer because the effort of setting up the earphones and taking out the hearing aids to listen rarely seems worth the effort. Certain voices are more difficult to catch than others. Children’s voices, for example, are very light and not always clear, so I sometimes miss out on conversation with my grand-children.
Other people’s attitudes to deafness are very interesting. I’m not stone deaf, so on the whole I haven’t encountered rudeness or exasperation from people outside the family. I’ve never been embarrassed by wearing hearing aids and always make people aware that I have hearing difficulty so that they don’t think I’m being rude or ignoring them if I don’t respond appropriately to something they say. Family and friends are good at asking me where I would prefer to sit in cafes and restaurants and at relaying instructions to me in public places when I can’t hear the speaker. In domestic situations with my nearest and dearest it’s not always the same story. I know that it’s not easy communicating with someone who’s hard of hearing. I had years of trying to make myself understood by my Dad, who could be pretty haphazard in his use of hearing aids and there were definitely times when I gave up and decided the effort of repeating myself just wasn’t worth it. On the other hand as the deafened person one soon becomes aware of the tutting and rolled eyes of an impatient family member being asked to repeat themself, of the exaggerated raised voice and slow enunciation as if talking to an idiot. I have been known to become upset and angry. So have they.
Apart from these irritations I think these days that I’m pretty well adjusted to using my aids. I certainly couldn’t manage without them. Somehow, though hearing loss isn’t “normalised” in my life. It’s still a problem and an irritation, something I would prefer not to have to think about and deal with.*Apparently a fifteenth anniversary is a crystal anniversary