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Aging boomers have options to deal with hearing issues

Sun., Nov. 14, 2010

The question is, will they take advantage of them?

Lilie Brucick, 83, is on the board of the Hillyard Senior Center. She takes a drawing class there, does Wii bowling and attends City Council meetings when the council visits the center.

Brucick can hear OK, and she isn’t ready for a hearing aid – yet.

But she doesn’t always catch what others are saying. And then?

“I just grin and bear it,” she said. “It’s embarrassing to complain.”

As the holiday season approaches, families will gather. Holiday plays and concerts will be performed.

The season of joy often becomes the season of dread for people with hearing loss, because they encounter some of the worst listening situations of the year. Crowded parties and restaurants. Entertainment venues with terrible acoustics.

This New Year’s Day, the first round of baby boomers will hit 65. Will they grin and bear poor hearing situations like the Greatest Generation who raised them?

Lean in closer. You’ll be surprised what the experts are saying.

Can you hear me now?

For a decade, the hearing aid industry has eagerly anticipated aging baby boomers – individuals born between 1946 and 1964.

Studies in the mid-2000s by the EAR Foundation reported that nearly half of the country’s 76 million boomers were already complaining about hearing loss. The numbers were expected to increase dramatically as they aged.

No surprise there. All those rock concerts!

But long-term research at the University of Wisconsin – on both baby boomers and the Depression/World War II generation – challenges conventional wisdom.

In January, the university’s School of Medicine and Public Health released a large-scale study showing that hearing impairment rates were 31 percent lower in baby boomers across all age groups, compared with their parents’ generation at the same ages.

Turns out those rock concerts often caused just temporary hearing loss. Boomers’ parents, on the other hand, often worked in noisy environments before workplace noise regulations protected hearing.

Also, greater numbers of the Greatest Generation smoked, leading to chronic cardiovascular disease, which compromises hearing.

And ear infections in the boomer generation didn’t lead to much lifelong damage, thanks to antibiotics – not yet available in most of their parents’ childhoods.

Still, hearing loss among boomers is inevitable, even if it won’t be as prevalent as it is for their parents.

But will boomers, unlike most of their parents, speak up for their right to hear?

In the loop

At St. Aloysius Church in Spokane, you can tote a digital radio to church, tune into 88.1, plug in earphones and hear Mass loud and clear, even from the parking lot.

The church invested in the FM low-level frequency sound equipment, but few church-goers use it.


“Most people are too embarrassed to bring a device into church,” speculated Don Weber, pastoral administrator.

Some folks wear glasses as a fashion accessory, even when they don’t need them. But hearing aid couture? Hasn’t happened yet.

Mitch Yarbrough, hearing instrument specialist at Columbia Hearing Centers in Spokane, said there’s still a stigma associated with hearing aids and other assistive listening devices.

“People really don’t want to advertise the fact they are hard of hearing,” he said.

Hearing aids are smaller, more discreet and better quality than ever, Yarbrough pointed out. Active boomers, such as former President Bill Clinton, wear them openly.

Yet resistance continues.

Even with hearing aids, people can still struggle to hear in churches, public meetings and performance halls. But meeting an aging audience’s hearing needs can be good business.

The INB Performing Arts Center in Spokane, for instance, has offered assistive listening devices since the early 1990s, said Johnna Boxley, the center’s general manager.

You hand over your driver’s license. In exchange, you receive a headset that plugs into a sound enhancement system. The devices are so popular that, on rare occasions, folks who don’t need them even request them.

Hearing rights protests?

What does society miss when older people withdraw due to hearing loss?

“We lose whatever their life experience is, their knowledge, their skills,” said Pam Sloan, director of Elder Services in Spokane.

“Someone may have a wonderful suggestion that may help (solve) the problem, but it’s never brought forth.”

She’s not so sure boomers will become hearing-rights militants.

“The more impaired we become, the less willing we are to let others know,” she said. “It’s written into our human nature.”

Nick Beamer is director of Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington. Hearing loss is always among the top 10 concerns in older-citizen surveys, he said.

Beamer predicts hearing rights will surface as a mainstream societal issue in about 10 years.

He’s hopeful that boomers will insist on better-quality sound systems everywhere, as some active seniors now do.

This year at his agency, for instance, microphones were added to around-the-table advisory council meetings.

“For people to participate actively in the community, being able to hear is key,” he said.

He’d also like to see boomers protest the high price of hearing aids and the limited insurance coverage for them.

“Go back to how these folks were in their college years,” he said of the boomers. “That activism will probably follow through.”

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