The mixed blessing of hearing aids

“Prepare for disappointment!” As they engaged each other in swordplay, Inigo Montoya and Dread Pirate Roberts tested the skills and determination of the other in the movie: The Princess Bride. After some engagement it was obvious that each was a skilled swordsman. But who would overcome the other?

Montoya              “Who are you?” he screamed.

Roberts                “No one of import. Another lover of the blade.”

Montoya              “I must know.”

Roberts                (Diplomatically) “Get used to disappointment.”

We must all get used to disappointment in life, no less so regarding our health, our bodies and the occasional physical challenge. Most importantly for me the challenge has been living with legal blindness or low vision since birth. I struggle with reading, with the recognition of people, places and things, and with mobility (I will never drive a car, legally). Add to this my recent challenge, impaired hearing or partial deafness. Really, wasn’t one special feature enough? It seems not.

Deafness is not alien to our family history. My mother lived with profound deafness most of her adult life. I remember going with my father and her to the old St. Joseph’s Hospital in Victoria where she was to have surgery for her ear. In the end, there were two surgeries, both unsuccessful. Her father, my grandfather was deaf due to his military career as an artillery officer. Her’s was a malformation of the shape of the ear. Mine arises from a steady erosion of acuiy over time; some say that a bout of pneumonia around age four may have contributed to my deafness; others suggest that many years of loud organ practice did not help.

All said, in recent years it has been harder to follow conversations, and sometimes instructions, at home, at work, and certainly in public settings. Coffee shops and restaurants are always a challenge. I am not shy to ask staff to turn down the ambient music; I position myself in the corner or at the edge of activity at conferences and social gatherings. Round tables of eight persons or less are OK but my inability to note body language or read lips in any way further frustrates my enjoyed and tires me out. I like to leave early. I can understand how hearing challenged persons tend to isolate themselves; some may even move into experiences of dementia, a progression prompted by isolation and social insecurity.

I remember when my mother received her first “smart” hearing aid. She had four settings—room; large room; phone booth (joke); and T-loop (electronic connection to an in-house system). This control variety did help slightly. On my present units I have something similar. A 360 degree grid allows me to focus on people directly ahead of me and to lower the volume of Aunt Maude or Uncle Norm on either side. It also gives me something to play with when the conversation, if audible is boring. If I am caught screening through Facebook I can quickly change to my settings menu.

In addition to specific environmental settings there are other associated challenges. Try wearing hearing aids with COVID masks, add reading glasses and in church, audio headsets all at the same time. All of a sudden the head feels heavy. You must put them on, and take them off in a very precise order—a fierce tangle can ensue. Then go outside and deal with hats.

Try going to a hospice or hospital where you must gown and mask up, and then forget when you exit the facility, leaving at least one hearing aid in the laundry basket. And how many times hearing-aid friends have you worn your very expensive devices in the pool, or in the shower, or at the beach. How many couches are littered under-pillow with a veritable cemetery of listening and hearing devices.

And then there’s perspiration. I am a heavy sweater. Perspiration is the sworn enemy of hearing aids. There is often a river flowing above my right earlobe. It can take me days to get moisture out of my hearing aid by using a glass chamber full of silicon beads. Sometimes I take my hearing aids to COSTCO (where I purchased my Rexton units) for a trip to the community de-humidifier. I bet you didn’t know that when you were selecting your trail mix with smarties that moisture was being vaporized at the Hearing Centre counter. (I will add that COSTCO does support their hearing products very, very well.)

And then, and this is the best part, there is the dreaded battery replacement process typically accompanied by the wax-guard basket and plug replacement routine. (The latter is particularly enjoyable for us low vision folks.) If you think the batteries are small, try the wax guard replacement. I may purchase some sort of microscope for this almost weekly ritual.

One final word concerns the expectations that hearing aids create for folks with normal or adequate hearing. Hearing aids, aid hearing—but when there is precious little hearing capacity, one must be patient and sometimes lower your expectations. If Rod Stewart can claim that A Nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse, then I can proclaim that a mumble directed to the wall of the room next door, is an absurd gesture and is in the end, unhelpful.

All technology has its limits; While I do not wear glasses except for special situations, I suspect that glasses deliver more effectiveness than hearing aids. Apart from special situations like Cochlear Implants, hearing aids are simply a little speaker suspended in the ear, fed by a signal captured by an amazingly small receiver tucked to the ear. It’s amazing technology, so far from what I remember my grandfather using. But friends, the technology is still limited.

Oen great advantage however is that I am discovering all sorts of friends who are companion hearing aid users. Imagine if we could link our devices together and love life, together, over distance but not time. You think Zoom is great—well imagine these new possibilities. Oh by the way, I was inspired to write this blog after my wife, Kathie send me this great piece from the Washington Post.

The Good Book says: “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” (Mark 8:18). Truthfully, yes. So let’s work together on this folks.

2 thoughts on “The mixed blessing of hearing aids

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  1. Yes, hearing aids: Seconds before I headed out the door this morning to go to church, my right hearing aid started bleeping. So the battery got replaced. Then a few hours later, I had a different bleep; this time it was my left hearing aid. My right ear is totally non-functional so the hearing aid on that side sends on audio signal wirelessly through my head to the left hearing aid, which then pumps sound from both hearing aids into my left ear. The result is I have zero stereophonic perception. At church this morning, I heard someone say my name; in the end, I spun in both directions before I could see the person, two feet behind me. But, and it’s a very large but, hearing aids are infinitely better than they were a number of decades ago.
    And yes, I’ve wondered about extensive organ practising. Apart from normal geriatric loss of high frequency hearing, loud organ music may also have had some effect on my “good” ear.


  2. I have known many folks over the years who have struggled with their hearing starting with my mother, whose left ear was folded over and she could not hear out of it at all; all her hearing was from her right ear. We quickly learned how difficult it was for her to hear and when my father, sister and I got into a sneezing fit, it practically blew her head up. Very painful. I have been aware of the difficulties folks with hearing loss have, but never never has it been so well described as you described. Thank you.


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