They're still hearing aids. But they're better--and smaller
Almost all hearing aids are digital these days, which gives them the ability to emphasize some frequencies more than others. That seems to help wearers distinguish speech from noise, for example. For the small percentage of people whose problem is simply that all sounds are too soft, the old analog hearing aids, which mostly just make everything louder, may do fine. A pair typically costs about $1,700.
People who can do without in-person hand-holding can get a big break by shopping online or by mail. Online queries posted by the magazine Hearing Health and aimed at people who had bought hearing aids on the Internet attracted mostly positive responses. One satisfied customer is Edward Myer, 75. Last December, Myer, who is profoundly hard of hearing, paid $2,000 by mail for BTE hearing aids "every bit as good" as his last $5,800 pair. The semiretired chairman of the MyerEmco chain of audio-video stores in the Washington, D.C., area ordered his new aids from America Hears in Bristol, Pa. Myer had to send a detailed hearing evaluation (an audiologist can conduct one for about $100) along with impressions of his ears made from a kit sent by the company. Customers can download to their computers a free program that lets them tweak their hearing aids themselves--to adjust individual frequency channels for better intelligibility, for example. "It's simple," says Myer. Other mail-order purveyors include Lloyds, which discounts brand-name hearing aids; Hearing Health Express, which sells its own brand of BTEs and ITEs, and HearingPlanet, which arranges discounts with local audiologists.
The Food and Drug Administration requires mail-order vendors to obtain a written statement from a purchaser's doctor attesting to a medical evaluation within the previous six months and clearing you to use a hearing aid. Someone contemplating a hearing aid should do that anyway, to rule out a possible medical problem (or something as simple as built-up wax). As a requirement, though, it doesn't mean much. Sellers can offer customers age 18 or older a form that waives the medical exam.
Attitude adjustment. Success with any hearing aid requires reasonable expectations. "Most manufacturers B.S. the customer with all kinds of claims about how you're going to be able to hear at a restaurant or cocktail party," says Myer. "You won't." But you might, like Myer, be able to converse with someone one on one--no small thing.
Some audiologists suggest starting off with a new hearing aid for an hour or so a day and lengthening the period gradually. Forget the hopeful test run at a party or meeting: Disappointment is inevitable and could cut short a fair trial. You're bound to need fine-tuning--and more fine-tuning. Even after two years with her current hearing aids, Pogue visits the audiologist every six weeks or so for a readjustment. She has adjusted, too. "I used to be a decent skier," she says. "I used to be a decent tennis player. Not anymore. Well, I can't hear the same anymore, either. I've had to recognize that."
Here is a sampling of the many online resources that can be useful to those with hearing difficulty.