May is Better Hearing and Speech Month
I once interviewed a man who played organs. He’d started out playing for the old silent films as a child but by the time I met him he was somewhere in his 90s and he preferred the giant ones you’d see in a major cathedral. I’m sure that there were artistic reasons he chose those massive behemoths but there were practical reasons as well as he was profoundly deaf. To hear his own playing he carried a device about the size of a small transistor radio and wore headphones. That was nearly a decade ago and a lot has happened in the audio world since then.
More than 28 million Americans suffer hearing loss (although some estimates run as high as 50 million) and unlike my music loving friend, most don’t know they have a problem. In fact the number of individuals with hearing loss is at best a guess thanks in part to health insurance companies including Medicare viewing hearing tests and hearing aids as discretionary health items. (As of Jan. 1, 2011, Medicaid in Washington no longer reimburses providers for the purchase of hearing aids, cochlear implants, and bone-anchored hearing aids, or for repair of the equipment, parts, or batteries. Audiology exams and medical treatment of the ear are still covered by Medicaid.) Many people either don’t believe their problem is all that bad or they discount the affect their poor hearing has on their lives because they are unable to afford medical attention for the problem.
“The problems of deafness are deeper and more complex, if not more important, than those of blindness. Deafness is a much worse misfortune. For it means the loss of the most vital stimulus — the sound of the voice that brings language, sets thoughts astir and keeps us in the intellectual company of man.”-Helen Keller
Among seniors, hearing loss is the third most prevalent but treatable disabling condition behind arthritis and hypertension. Aging is the primary cause of hearing loss but other reasons include medications, infections, head injuries, circulation problems such as high blood pressure and noise. In youth-obsessed America we often choose deafness to the stigma of looking like we are growing old. Go here to read Rebecca Nappi of the Spokesman-Review’s humorous take on what it is like to live with someone going deaf.
However, there’s a huge cost to having untreated hearing loss. Claudia Dewane in the July/August 2010 issue of Social Work Today wrote that “Hearing loss may trigger an identity crisis, and reactive depression may occur. There is a cultural continuum of hearing loss. A sense of belonging is important to mental health, yet individuals who are hard of hearing don’t belong entirely in the hearing world or in the deaf culture.”
Katherine Bouton’s recent memoir, “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I–and 50 Million Other Americans–Can’t Hear You” documents her experience of going deaf over a period of 20 years starting when she was 30 years old. You can hear (or read) an NPR interview with Bouton here. Town Hall Seattle had her speak in March and you can hear that speech here.
The severely loud concerts that began in the 60s and 70s as well as the sheer number of hours we now spend in loud environments (street noise, televisions and headphones are examples) that didn’t exist previously will likely result in larger numbers of Baby Boomers and younger people experiencing deafness from noise. Scientists estimate that we are decades perhaps as much as 30 to 50 years from a solution so for the majority of us, the only answer is to protect our hearing as much as possible, see an audiologist when warranted and if we do experience deafness to use the tools already available to ensure that we remain connected to the rest of the world.
Bouton’s suggestions for being heard by a hard of hearing person:
- If they cannot hear you do not shout or lean in to speak closer to their ears as leaning in prevents the person from being able to read your lips and shouting usually makes the words harder to hear rather than easier. Instead, try rephrasing what you have said.
- Don’t stand in front of a light when talking to someone who might then be unable to see your facial features.
- Make use of current technologies such as emailing and texting as backups for someone who may have had struggles hearing AND understanding what you have said.
Her book has more suggestions.
One of the most frequently mentioned items in any hearing loss article is that the cost of hearing aids can run as high as several thousand dollars. AARP has a short list of resources available for those looking to get help with the costs.
New study links hearing loss with cognitive decline