The art of hearing: She said

(Graphic by Molly Quinn)

My husband and I have already decided on the epitaph for our combined gravestone. It will read: “Talking together again.”

When I married Tony 28 years ago, my friends who had married strong, silent guys envied me the catch of a “verbal man.”

So when Tony’s hearing began deteriorating more than a decade ago, I did not react well. I felt angry, frustrated and sad.

You don’t read much about the grief associated with hearing loss, for the people experiencing it and those who love them.

I’m still in the mad-sad phase of this unique grief, a long way from acceptance.

The rules of verbal engagement Tony and I lived by in the first half of our marriage – talk and be heard at all times – have changed dramatically in this second half of our marriage.

I can no longer yell at Tony from another room to come look at something. I can no longer talk to him while he’s cooking, because the stove fan drowns me out. I must face him directly to be heard.

In my younger years as a reporter, when I called older men to interview them for stories, their wives often picked up the extension. To censor the comments, I thought then. Now I realize these wives were helping their husbands hear, because they repeated my questions in loud voices.

I vowed never to be one of those irritating wives. But I am.

Tony can hear pretty well on phones, but for important calls, such as setting up doctor’s appointments, we put our home phone on the speaker setting. When the scheduler asks for Tony’s birth date, and he doesn’t hear the question, I yell: “Your birth date! Your birth date!”

The young schedulers on the other end of the line are likely rolling their eyes, thinking: “Oh no, another screaming wife.”

I am luckier than many wives whose husbands are losing their hearing. I didn’t have to nag Tony about hearing aids. He got fitted for them as soon as hearing tests revealed a deficit.

He wears his hearing aids almost all the time, but hearing aids, no matter how expensive, approximate human hearing about as well as a computer writes poetry. Our inner ear is a poem in miniature.

Tony also purchased state-of-the-art television headphones, eliminating that obnoxious TV blaring sound common in homes where people cannot hear well.

Recently, I asked him to quit saying “Huh?” because it irritated me so much. I asked him to substitute “Excuse me, dear?”

I meant it as a joke, but the phrase has caught on with him, and it makes me laugh, easing the tension at not being heard.

My grief over Tony’s hearing loss is exacerbated by the fact my 92-year-old mother also wears hearing aids, and my “beat” now at the newspaper – aging boomers and seniors – means that I sometimes scream my way through interviews.

Recently, I delivered the eulogy for a family friend who died in her 80s. The acoustics were not great, and so I spoke ultra loud into the microphone. Several older men came up to me afterward and said they didn’t hear a word.

When I go to restaurants with Tony or my mother, or both, I am instantly on alert. Will they be able to hear? Recently, my mom and I ate lunch at a new restaurant that’s generating a lot of buzz. The design is trendy, edgy, with high ceilings and an open kitchen.

The food is superb, but the acoustics are terrible. The chef was using a blender – clear across the restaurant, but it rendered impossible conversation at our table.

A few years ago, I had my hearing tested and was told: “You have the hearing of a child.”

Likely, this won’t always be so, because heredity is one factor in hearing loss.

Assaults to the ears also erode hearing. In high school, college and in my 20s, I attended a lot of concerts and dances. We all noted how our ears buzzed for about 24 hours afterward. We found it amusing. No more.

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Recently, while driving with a great-nephew, I asked him a question from the front seat. I didn’t hear his answer.

“What honey?”

He repeated the question.

“What honey?”

He sighed, exasperated.

“Aunt Becky, how come your ears don’t work so good?”

They actually work pretty good, for now. But if they go from good to bad, I feel gratitude for my husband, my mother and others who accept their loss, use hearing aids and still venture out into a world filled with people, like me, impatient with the word “huh?”

Hear me now

Katherine Bouton’s 2013 book “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I – and 50 million Other Americans – Can’t Hear You” is a groundbreaking look at hearing loss and what it means for individuals, families and communities.

Bouton, a former New York Times editor, began losing her hearing when she was 30, and kept it hidden (as best she could) for decades. Bouton now believes that people with hearing loss need to share their stories honestly so that our culture will be better prepared as aging boomers cope with hearing deficits in unprecedented numbers.

Some highlights – and surprises – from Bouton’s book:

• Thirty percent of adults 65 to 74 have a hearing impairment. Live into your 80s and the number jumps to 90 percent.

• Fifteen percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have noise-induced hearing loss.

• Noise is the second most common complaint about restaurants, yet the noise level is no accident. More noise, especially loud music, translates to greater profits.

• Two-thirds of people with hearing impairment report severe social and emotional handicaps on tests of psychosocial functioning.

• Of the 48 million people who are hearing impaired in the United States, only 1 in 7 older than 50 uses hearing aids.

• Most people, often due to denial, delay getting hearing aids, lessening their effectiveness. The average age of first-time hearing aid users is about 70, though nearly half the people with hearing loss are younger than 55.

Only 4.5 percent of people ages 50 to 59 who need hearing aids use them.

• The cost of a good hearing aid ranges from $2,000 to $6,000. Bouton argues the cost is worth it. Factors that contribute to the high cost: research and development, manufacturing expenses, customization of the hearing aids and time spent with the audiologists.

“Averaged over the lifetime of the instruments (three to five years or more) the cost per day of hearing aids is about $3,” Bouton reports.

• By 2050, the number of people worldwide with hearing loss is expected to top 900 million.

• The two leading disabilities for Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are hearing loss and tinnitus, an often debilitating ear-ringing.

• Researchers throughout the world are searching for a cure for hearing loss. At Stanford University 70 scientists are working on hearing regeneration; the University of Washington has an impressive effort going, too.

“For those millions of people with hearing loss, the prospect of a biological cure is at last a reality,” Bouton writes. “A distant reality, perhaps, but no less dazzling for it.”

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