Ordinary social commentary holds that the loss of hearing, while hardly unusual, carries a lot of “aging” baggage. Men, in particular, are commonly held to be in denial over this particular component of physical degeneration. Their spouses are often the first to report/allege communications problems. Of course, the degree to which this differential diagnosis is due to a) not being able to hear and b) not being interested in listening or c) issues with the creation of a clear message, is not always clear. This is certainly reflected in my own case.
Minor hearing impairment, at least in my case, presents the curious sensation of being an invisible ailment; i.e., I don’t really have a sense of my shortcoming. In other words, I don’t know what I’m missing: which comes down to a little clarity around words extracted from a buzzing conversation (all too readily filled-in by my brain overlaying history and social and linguistic context). My audiologist tells me that once fully equipped with remedial technology (of which more below), I will appreciate what I apparently can’t hear now.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the diagnosis was the way I reacted: a lack of surprise, a grudging acceptance of the state of my body, a residuum of denial; but, even more, an awareness of how differently I reacted as compared with a comparable diagnosis of my sight. I’ve been wearing glasses since I was seven. With the exception of a few years in my 40s when I shifted to contact lenses (only to return to glasses when bifocals became necessary); they have been a basic part of my self-image for as long as I can remember.
In terms of impairment, myopia and presbycusis (Okay, I had to look that word up!) seem pretty similar. In my case, my sight has been limited for decades. It’s a given, no big deal. Why would I treat my ears differently than my eyes? Indeed, as an avid reader, my eyes have always seemed more important to me than my ears and I have little doubt what I would choose if forced to give one up. So, following the hearing test, my wanting to react more strongly, to protest and deny, was quickly undercut by the realization of my pretense.
My affected rejection comes from a combination of 1) memories of old men and old technologies (i.e., not wanting to look like my grandfather, 2) not wanting to signal my (apparent) age/decline by having visible technical aids (one step better than a walker), and 3) an aversion to having anything in my ears. All of which I ignore in the case of glasses.
I also remember when my dad got hearing aids. My mom had to nudge him for a while, but eventually, they became part of his routine. He used to grumble about them—the fit, the cost, the batteries, the limited effectiveness. I’m pretty sure I was on my mom’s side on this issue, telling him to get over it. (Now, if I would only look in the mirror and say the same thing…)
At the Kaiser Medical Center, there is (naturally) a comprehensive protocol for this diagnosis. I’ve had the test and the preliminary discussion with the audiologist. Next, if (when) I choose, I can get a consultation with a “Hearing Instrument Specialist” who will explain the various devices, including cost (anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars per ear), effectiveness, size/weight, tech interfaces, etc. I can then order the devices and come back for a preliminary fitting and a follow-up. Or, I can get a device over-the-counter. A little googling shows that here as in many other areas, the tech has gotten a lot better in the last ten years. I guess with all the Dr Dre’s and iBuds out there, it’s not too surprising. Many hearing aids can Bluetooth connect with my iPhone. And, of course, there are many models that are much smaller than they used to be (If only I can get over my aversion to things in my ear!). I imagine that within a few years, there will be easily implantable aids that will also connect via Bluetooth to a microphone in my phone so I can subvocalize questions and carry on a pretty seamless and invisible conversation. Neural shunts (direct implants connecting to the brain) can’t be that far off; pretty soon we will be somewhere between the Six-Million-Dollar Man (1973) and the Borg on Star Trek (1989).
So much for the tech part of the story.
Bottom line: I don’t think I’m ready to take this step yet. I don’t have the sense that I’m actually missing all that much in the way of comprehensible sound waves. The technology is continuing to come down the cost/effectiveness curve. And, perhaps, I need a little more time to come to terms with all this. But, eventually, I will take this step. As the Borg says: “Resistance is futile.”