Hearing aids… I’m listening

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A man adjusts his smartphone to his hearing aids in a quiet forest environment. Photo: WIDEX

Journalist and family man Steven Lang shares his experience of using hearing aids for the first time – and some insights about making the decision to make the leap.

In the audiologist’s consulting room everything was quiet. She taught me how to clean and care for my hearing aids. She carefully explained how to fit the devices into my ears – not too deep, not too shallow. Her voice was clear, but mine had a slight echo and sounded too loud. In search of equilibrium, I found myself speaking softer, then louder, then softer again.

As I left her rooms and walked down the Settlers Hospital passageway, I became aware of my squealing boots as I gingerly walked along. They made this terribly annoying squeak that I had never heard before.

Then the door swung open and I could hear people’s busy movements – treading, talking, cleaning – some machine in the background hummed loudly. I looked around self-consciously. Could all these people hear what I was listening to?

Outside, a car idling in the parking-lot was grating. Didn’t they know that this was a hospital where you are expected to respect the silence?

I could hear birds tweeting loudly and people who I could not even see, were talking in the background.

I felt slightly disoriented, somewhat off-balance.

I got into my car cautiously, checking mirrors and dials a few times to make sure that everything was where it was supposed to be.

Arriving at the University’s Journalism School, I closed the car door with a bang. Is it usually such a forceful thud?

There seemed to be birds everywhere, tweeting energetically while I cautiously made my way across the parking lot.

As I entered the building foyer, two colleagues greeted me – creating a sound experience that verged on the surreal. They were talking to me, but they were in my ears, in my head. The locus of sound had changed places from some vague place out there to right here in my brain. I am sure that my confused look made them think I had been popping some sort of hallucinogens.

My office is normally oppressively quiet, but now I can hear the building, its pipes and its mechanical innards rumbling in a way that was vaguely menacing. They seem to be making a low frequency hum all the time. There is no silence.

And now typing – it is almost painful how loud my keyboard is. I am excruciatingly aware of my typing. It’s a computer keyboard that sounds more like an old-fashioned, manual QWERTY. Maybe the hearing-aid settings are too high. I cannot believe that everyday typing is such a noisy business. Keyboards vary, but I tend to smack the keys – I learnt to type (in a manner of speaking) in the days of Olivettis and Olympias, when you had to make sure that each key knew it had been good and truly whacked.

For some reason, I get slight howl-back when I am working at my computer. It is only faint and not present all the time, but it is there, making it difficult to write anything. I have tried many different approaches to silence it. I have muted the speaker and the microphone on my laptop, but that doesn’t seem to help. Sometimes, I think I am getting it right by correctly positioning the arm of my glasses between my skull and the hearing aid. It seems to have some effect… but I am not sure.

I’ve also tried turning down the volume on the devices themselves. That does not work – if I mute the hearing aids I have no howl-back, but also no hearing aid.

I wonder if I should take the hearing aids out when I work at the computer. Sometimes I spend hours alone at the keyboard and never have anyone to listen to.

Other sounds I have become aware of – the toilet flushing is catastrophic, and the flow of pee as it hits the water in the toilet sounds like weaponised audio.

My slippers scrape at high volume as I drag my feet down the passage at home. The peeps on the burglar alarm and the microwave oven all seem to be exaggerated and mocking.

I never knew before that the indicators on my car made such a loud click-click and the birds, they seem to be everywhere.

Modern hearing-aids are extra-ordinary pieces of micro-scale engineering that fit behind my ears and are all but invisible. Photo: WIDEX

Should you get hearing aids?

You probably should be getting hearing aids. If you’re reading this article, you must have your doubts, and since your hearing is usually worse than you think – don’t deprive yourself or your family – go and get tested.

You’ve noticed that some people, especially the young ones, tend to mumble. Why don’t they speak clearly? Their parents should teach them how to speak properly.

People at the end of conference table seem to be muttering among themselves. Don’t they know this is a meeting where everybody should hear what they are saying? So you sit in the middle of the table and forego the power-positions at the ends.

Bars and restaurants have become uncomfortable places. Everybody is talking at once and you can’t hear what they are saying. What’s the point of eating out if you can’t have a decent conversation?

Talking about conversations, you seem to be left out of them more often than not. Family discussions appear to progress quite nicely without you. You try joining in once, “What did he say?”

“Stop mumbling. Say that again”

“What did he say?”

“What did she say?”

Eventually you stop asking and just sit there smiling and nodding every now and so often.

You’ve been left out and no one wants to talk to you.

People usually avoid getting hearing aids for a number of reasons. We all have a relative who used clunky, old-fashioned (last century) hearing aids that fell off often, made loud whistling noises or both. They were unsightly, clumsy and a clear indication that you were really old.

Modern hearing-aids are extra-ordinary pieces of micro-scale engineering that fit behind my ears and are all but invisible. I change modes – universal, crowd or music – with a tiny button on each device. More complicated adjustments I can make on my smartphone which is directly linked through an app to my hearing aids.

The Bluetooth link between my hearing aids and my phone mean that I can pick up a phone call on the buds already in my ears. This has meant a big change for me as previously I used to avoid phone calls because I could hardly ever hear what the other person was saying. I can now hear phone calls rather well.

The Bluetooth feature means that I can now hear music without anyone noticing and it is also comes in handy for transcribing interviews.

The real value of these tiny devices is not so that I have a new app to play with or that I can listen to music without anyone noticing. It is so that I can enjoy normal social life. I can participate in family conversations and interact normally with my work colleagues. They have given me a valuable new lease on life.

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