They're still hearing aids. But they're better--and smaller
At first, awareness dawns that you are struggling to follow conversations amid babble and noise. Soon "your family and close friends joke about your getting deaf," says Joanne Pogue, 74, who as president of the library board in Washington, Maine, recalls finding it harder with each meeting to hear board members around the large table. "I joked about it." Better, perhaps, than to be patronized ("Uncle Jim, do you want me to listen to the specials and order for you?") or treated as barely there. Locked in growing silence, older people with impaired hearing often withdraw and grow isolated. Studies show they may even die before their time.
If their sight were declining, most people wouldn't hesitate to get glasses, a cataract operation--whatever is necessary. So where are the hearing aids? In a dresser drawer, says 1 person in 6 of those who own one--which under a quarter of the nation's 31.5 million hearing-impaired people do. No comparable device is burdened with such a neckload of albatrosses: It shouts infirmity, costs a lot, falls short regularly, and demands never-ending upkeep and adjustment. "A hearing aid is not a magical device that will let you hear the way you did before," says Lucille Beck, national director of audiology and speech pathology for the Department of Veterans Affairs and a leader in hearing-aid research. It is not, in other words, like a pair of eyeglasses.
But recent advances in design give holdouts reason to reconsider. And if they can adjust their expectations--and then adjust to the hearing aids themselves--the payoff is likely to be surprisingly rewarding. "You need to relearn how to listen," says Beck. That may take months, even a year or more, as the brain retrains itself to process sounds. (VA patients who come to see Beck are often startled, she says, when the ceiling fan above them suddenly becomes audible.) But in a recent survey, 85 percent of users said they were satisfied with the results; in studies, hearing-impaired veterans who use the instruments report a much higher quality of life than those who don't. Pogue fiddled with different hearing aids for a couple of years before an audiologist put her on her current ones--and advised her to lower her expectations, which she did. "Background noise is still a problem," she says. "But I feel very happy with the ones I have now."
Manufacturers have attempted to address squeamishness about wearing such an apparatus with a range of options less obtrusive than the familiar crescent-shaped instruments that fit behind the ear (box). With "BTEs," the crescent picks up sound and processes it into electrical impulses that are sent through a wire to the speaker, which sits quite visibly in the concha, the part of the outer ear that funnels into the canal. Instead, many people now prefer an innovative "mini" version, like the one Pogue wears, that dramatically reduces the size of the crescent and replaces the bulky wire and speaker with a clear, thin tube that carries sound into the canal and is just visible. "In the ear" (ITE) models sit entirely within the outer ear, and still smaller "in the canal" (ITC) hearing aids fit into just the inner portion of the concha. A "completely in canal" (CIC) aid, tucked so far down that it comes with a plastic thread to pull it out, is Lilliputian. You'd have to be looking straight into the ear to find it.