My husband sits at his desk, talking to me as I clean up the kitchen. The TV is on and water runs in the sink, and while I can hear him talking, I can’t understand the words.
“What did you say?” I ask, turning the faucet off and looking in his direction.
He greets me with a familiar scowl.
“I said it as loud as I could,” he says, then repeats himself, shaking his head.
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We’ve played this same scene out all too frequently in recent years – his frustration at my inability to understand him, and mine with his impatience. Though for years it’s been easy to see blurred words on a page without my glasses, it wasn’t so clear what I couldn’t hear. My children mumbled, but don’t all 20-somethings? I had to turn the TV up, but doesn’t everybody? Yes, I was having trouble understanding someone when they whispered, but, but, but. When I sat in meetings each week with our staff, I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t hear a word spoken by the low talkers around the table.
I can hear plenty: owls hooting in the trees on my pre-dawn walk. A faraway train coming into town. The “drink your teee,” call of the towhee in the tree out back.
But I can’t understand my husband talking to me from another room or the difference between a P and a T on the phone. And not understanding the voices of small children is heartbreaking.
So seven years ago, I finally had my hearing checked.
“My family says I can’t hear,” I told my doctor. He pulled out a pitch pipe and pressed a little button on the side, though it took a full minute for me to hear the buzz. The battery of later tests felt like multiple choice questions with no right answer.
The diagnosis: I’m missing the high decibels (women’s and children’s voices) and the low (my husband.) And so, I got hearing aids.
The day I walked out with my new ears I couldn’t believe the noise. In a meeting with a dozen women, I heard their voices but couldn’t discern a single conversation. When my phone started ringing in my blue-tooth wired hearing aids I ripped them out. Having tinnitus, my ears ring most of the time anyway. I didn’t need to amplify the noise in my brain.
It took time, but I adjusted to my new ears. I turned up the volume during meetings, found myself asking perfect strangers to speak up.
I’m not even 60, but I am the old woman on the greeting card who even with my ears, misinterprets what she hears. Ask me “Where is the mail?” and I’ll hear “Claire’s in jail!” I’ll answer with details of season one of “Outlander,” leaving friends and family wondering if I have lost my hearing and my marbles.
According to the National Institutes of Health, 14 percent of Americans ages 20 to 69 have some form of hearing loss, and that percentage increases markedly as we age. More than 28 million people in the U.S. would benefit from hearing aids, though many sufferers don’t use them.
Cost may be a factor. Full-page newspaper ads quote prices starting at $499, but that’s per ear. (Most people need two.) Depending on the technology, aids can cost up to $6,000 a pair. Many insurance companies (including mine) consider them “elective,” and don’t cover even part of the cost. But if you break it down to daily use, it’s less than a cup of gourmet coffee a day over the course of seven years. (The life of a hearing aid is about seven years.)
It’s been hard to admit that I don’t understand what others are saying. Now, even wearing my ears, I sometimes nod and smile at low talkers, hoping I haven’t missed anything really important. But hearing loss can be isolating. It can cause depression and withdrawal and put those who suffer at higher risk for dementia.
After seven years, I know I’m not hearing as well as when I first put my new ears on – hence, that conversation with my husband a few weeks back – so new hearing aids are on the horizon for me. But there are days when I leave them on the dresser, opting for the clarity of my backyard birds over the cluttered noise of the world.
Susan Byrum Rountree is the author of “Nags Headers” and “In Mother Words.” She does admit to suffering from selective hearing at times, which has nothing to do with her actual hearing loss. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.