Senior Scene: I’m finally all done turning a deaf ear


This winter I finally got hearing aids. Though I’d known for years that I needed them, and my wife had encouraged me to have the devices installed — to get an upgrade, as it were — I’d always resisted. I’m not sure why, but most likely from an unwillingness to admit to myself that I needed them. I felt too young to be that old. But I’d read that deafness leads to isolation and increased loneliness, and may also contribute to dementia.

Ultimately, I didn’t want people to think that my inability to understand them meant that I was stupid. I may be stupid, but hearing has nothing to do with it.

I grew up familiar with deafness: it runs in the family. My father went deaf at 16 and dropped out of school. He got a hearing aid when he was about 27, after my sister was born and he’d been unable to hear her cooing. When I came along, he’d been wearing his hearing aid for about three years. It was a Sonotone — the first corporate name I ever learned. He and my mother called the hearing aid a Sonotone the way people refer to a photocopy as a Xerox, or any tissue as a Kleenex. The unit consisted of a box containing the microphone, amplifier and batteries, hanging in a cloth harness under his shirt, and two flesh-colored wires, braided, emerging from the shirt and running up the side of his neck to a very noticeable earpiece. One of my early memories is of driving from Yonkers with my parents to the Sonotone lab and manufacturing plant in Elmsford to buy hearing aid batteries. My father’s younger brother, my Uncle Bob, wore an identical device; people who didn’t know them well, seeing only the hearing aids, often mistook one brother for the other, as though they were twins.

Awareness of my own hearing deficit may have started when I began needing subtitles to understand the dialogue in British movies and TV shows — then in all movies and TV shows. I stopped going to movie theaters because the last time I went, several years ago, the dialogue hit me like a loud, annoying and incomprehensible wall of noise. I stopped going to plays. Over time, unless people looked at me as they spoke, I couldn’t comprehend a word they said. I often couldn’t understand at all the soft voices of my grandchildren, and too frequently had to ask them to repeat themselves.

And I’d begun imitating my grandfather by cupping my right hand behind my ear whenever people spoke to me. I’m not sure what the cupping of a hand behind the ear is meant to accomplish —maybe to capture sound as it’s passing by or to say, politely, “Speak up!” Either way, it’s no substitute for modern hearing aids.

Right after Christmas I went to an audiologist and had four or five types of hearing tests. Afterwards the audiologist showed me a chart representing the results. My hearing in the low-frequency range was all right, but it dropped off badly in the higher ranges. On the printout, the drop-off looked like the Grand Canyon. The good news was that the type of hearing loss I have responds well to hearing aids, which these days are small and unobtrusive, with only a tiny earpiece and receiver fitting inside the ear, and the microphone nestling behind it. The units are powered by rechargeable lithium batteries and come with a charger, like a cell phone. I ordered a pair, and when they arrived in January the audiologist configured them by computer to amplify high-frequency sounds.

Wearing them, I was immediately shocked by how noisy the world is. On the drive home I discovered that the turn signal in my car makes a loud clicking noise. I’d owned the car for three years but had never heard the turn signal. Snow crunched under my shoes. I learned that my hat and coat made noises when I took them off. When I took off my shoes, the plastic tips of the shoelaces clattered on the floor. Suddenly, I heard our dogs’ toenails clicking on the wood floor, and the ticking of the little clock on the refrigerator, and the crisp rattle of newspaper pages as I turned them. And the birds — they’re driving me nuts with their singing. Who knew a tufted titmouse could be so loud singing PEET PEET PEET?

I feel as if I’ve come back to the world after a very long absence. This spring, for the first time in years, I heard the peepers. What a racket they make.

Robert Bechtold lives in Morris. ‘Senior Scene’ columns can be found at www.

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