Hearing aids: Pump up the sound

“Perhaps you should consider hearing aids.” I glance over my shoulder to see if the audiologist is talking to someone else. But no, there’s only me.  Hearing aids? Is she serious? I’m only 59.

That was three years ago. I did nothing then. My hearing was what the audiologist called borderline. I could live with it. Now, three years later, I wait apprehensively to be fitted with hearing aids. “Maggie will see you now,” says the receptionist. I step through the door as if I’m stepping out of an airplane. Nothing will be the same after this.

Facing reality
Maggie Arzani, the hearing instrument dispenser, opens a gold-lettered black box and produces two shiny, pink, snail-like objects.

What has finally brought me here is fear. I remember my mother’s blank gaze as she sat with us at the dinner table, completely cut off by her deafness. She waited too long before getting heari aids, and she could never adjust to them (experts say most people wait 10 to 15 years too long before getting hearing aids).

The turning point for me was my daughter Yasmin. “Mom,” she told my wife after one of  my visits, “It’s time Dad got hearing aids. We had to have the TV up so loud.”

Too young? Forget it. The biggest increase in hearing loss now is among 40- to 50-year-olds who are paying the price for the rock music of their youth, over-loud Walkmans and noisy cities. A new test shows my hearing has deteriorated moderately since last time.

Hearing clear
Perhaps I can get a pair of those almost-invisible, in-the-canal hearing aids  — two hearing aids are nearly always superior to one. But the audiologist explains that my ear canals are too narrow for the in-the-canal design.

Maggie had taken a wax impression of the interior of my ear and then, sooner that I hoped or expected, she calls to say the instruments are ready.

She shows me the tiny switches that activate the directional microphones that should make conversation, especially in noisy surroundings, a lot easier.

“Try them,” she says. With clumsy fingers I fit them into my ears, then turn the fingertip volume dials. It’s like turning on a long-rusted faucet. Like a cold, fresh stream, sound enters my head as I never remember hearing it before.

I am aware of the throb of the heater behind me, the hum of Maggie’s computer and when she types a few letters on the keyboard, it sounds like castanets. A piece of paper she hands me crackles like a forest fire. When I move I can even hear my clothing rustle.

“That effect will wear off after a few weeks as your brain adjusts,” Maggie explains.

In the washroom later, every drop of water is audible as it hits the sink. On the way home on my bicycle, the wind loud in my ears, I can hear every stone under the tires. Suddenly it comes to me: this is like living in a crystal cave with the tiniest of sounds sharp and acute. It is not unpleasant.

Reactions to my hearing aids vary. From my son, Ivor: “Gee, dad, I didn’t know you had a problem.” Never be sorry when someone close gets hearing aids: congratulate them on their courage and good sense.

My daughter Fazia doesn’t even notice them for a while and then says, “But that’s wonderful.”

It’s not all wonderful. I need to get used to the sound of my own voice inside my head. Chewing can be a noisy business, and crunchy croutons are now my least favourite food. I have to get used to holding the telephone receiver a little away from my ear, and the voices sound metallic an unfamiliar. A foam pad on the hearing-piece helps.

But, oh, the compensations! I love going to the movies wearing my hearing aids, confident I’ll hear every word.

“Could you speak a little quieter?” I sometimes ask my wife. And, “Do you mind if I turn down the TV?”

On the subway I eavesdrop on two men having a business session halfway down the car (“You have a future as a private investigator,” says Yasmin later).

Some days, working alone in my office, I forget to put them in. Then I am annoyed with myself because I am determined to make these instruments second nature.
I’m still learning. Over a deli lunch with my friend Ted, the noise from the table behind him grows into bedlam in my head.

“Do you mind changing places?” I ask him, then switch on my directional mikes to block out the sound from behind. Perfect: I hear every word.
And I am still laughing. “I want a hearing aid, Grampa,” says 10-year-old Lyndon, after I show him how they work. “They’re cool!”