While visiting my family over the holidays, hearing loss was a strong theme throughout.
I live overseas from my family, and when I return to the UK, I try to visit as many family members as possible. Having chunks of time away from family means I tend to notice changes in their behaviour and appearance and the effect of ageing on the older members.
My dad has just started wearing hearing aids. We have suspected he has been gradually losing his hearing for a few years and, in addition to the continually raising volume of his voice, there were other indications of hearing damage. Some months ago, my dad said to my mum, “Can you hear that buzzing sound?” My mum couldn’t hear anything. My dad walked around the living room, positioning an ear close to various sound sources, and determined the buzzing was probably coming from the DVD player (yes, they still have a DVD player!) He proceeded to take it apart and then put it back together again (I’m not sure exactly what he was trying to achieve here!) Anyway, once he’d finished his experiment, he stepped back from it looking proud of himself, thinking he’d solved the problem. But, soon enough, he realised the buzzing was still there. He later determined he was experiencing tinnitus, a possible sign that he had developed some kind of hearing loss.
I was proud of my dad for finally getting hearing aids; he tends to put things off. It’s the first time I’ve seen him since he received his aids a few months ago. I immediately noticed he seemed to be paying more attention to conversations. He also told me that since getting hearing aids, he feels that his tinnitus doesn’t bother him as much. In fact, even when he has a break from wearing his hearing aids, the tinnitus isn’t as intrusive. He’s still getting used to the hearing aids and there are some situations in which he finds them uncomfortable. I noticed he often takes them off when he arrives home after being out for the day. I guess he feels the need for a listening break. One morning, over the holidays, my dad entered the house after his morning bike ride. I was in the kitchen making tea when in a booming voice, he commented how cold it was outside. Hmm, I suspected he wasn’t wearing his aids. Sure enough, when I went to sit down with my cup of tea in the living room, I noticed his hearing aids sitting neatly by the settee in their charging box.
My grandparents both have hearing loss. My grandma has, I suspect, severe hearing loss. She has state-of-the-art hearing aids for both ears and still finds it difficult to hear conversation. We all make an effort to speak clearly to her and project our voices, but it’s clear when she hasn’t understood something and is smiling in acknowledgement rather than with comprehension. She has never been much of a conversationalist but will occasionally ask a question or make a comment about something that has suddenly occurred to her. During these moments we hang on her every word, giving her our full attention. I have watched my grandma become increasingly withdrawn in conversation due to her hearing loss. She seems at peace with this or perhaps just accustomed to her circumstances.
My grandad loves conversation and company. During my last visit, he was recovering from covid and had lost his sense of taste and smell. He loves food and losing his sense of taste was impacting his mental health. As well as no taste or smell, he also could hardly hear anything. Though he wears hearing aids, they weren’t much use due to wax build-up. He had been scheduled to have a wax removal, but the appointment had been cancelled three times during the past few weeks. My grandad, a sociable creature, needs company and connections, and it was heartbreaking to see him struggling to communicate. To quote the author, and disability rights advocate, Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf: “Blindness separates people from things; deafness separates people from people.” I pondered the impact of hearing loss on my grandad’s ability to connect with his family. We had a short conversation using pen and paper, and I showed him the Live Transcribe app on my phone, which he was fascinated with, though he confided that he was hesitant to embrace such new technologies. I hope he will soon have his ears cleaned so he can make the most of the hearing he still has, and can return to enjoying communicating with those around him.
On reflection, I realised that though I regularly speak with people with hearing loss online, I rarely have in-person interactions. I am conscious that hearing loss in my family affects each member in different ways, and we all manage it differently. For me, so focused on observing my loved ones, I rarely thought about my own hearing loss; I learned just how much my hearing loss is part of me.