Have You Heard? My experience of hearing aids…

One of the GOOD things in the National Health Service in Northern Ireland is the Audiology Department. It probably takes some time to get an initial appointment these days but, let’s face it, being hard of hearing is not life- threatening; irritating, yes, especially for people around you, but it isn’t going to kill you unless, of course, you are standing with your back to an oncoming electric car.

Becoming aware of the affliction begins with complaining that the actors on TV no longer enunciate properly and haven’t a clue about projection. One’s companions, if one still has any, leave the room, mumbling stuff one can’t hear, to find other quieter, more peaceful pursuits. Eventually denial is eradicated by an embarrassing but essential happening such as one’s daughter-in-law shouting at you from across a crowded room, “For God’s sake Felicity! Go and get your hearing tested.” Enough said and off I went.

Living with hearing aids for the first time is confusing. Yes, one can hear what people are saying once more but one can hear everything else as well, just as loud. Should a tap be running nearer to you than the person who is talking, the sound of the gushing water will drown them out! Should the person be reading a newspaper, the noise of the paper rustling will compete with his or her words. Restaurants are hell with an overwhelming cacophony of clattering cutlery and crockery alongside erupting coffee machines. You pray they will bring back upholstered banquettes, table cloths and carpets which absorb sound – but of course they won’t for all sorts of reasonable reasons! And please, spare us ‘deafies’ from overhead music.

The consultant in the Audiology Department explained to me that our brains are geared to cut out extraneous sounds and pick out what we want to hear, like being able to have a conversation at a party amid the roar of other conversations. Hearing aids cannot cope with this quite yet but the experts are working on it. I remember walking down the street with a friend shortly after I acquired my aids and was shocked when I realised she was talking nineteen to the dozen and all I could hear was the traffic.

Hearing aids, powered by tiny batteries, play a tune when you first put them in to tell you they are working and this is comforting. They give a warning ‘beep’ when they are about to lose power and need to be replaced. New batteries are acquired by texting the Audiology Department with one’s name and date of birth and within two or three days, they arrive by post. Should anything go wrong there is a number to call and a kind person is there to give advice. A check-up hearing test by a consultant is available once a year when they adjust your aids if needed. And all this is free.

At my last check-up I was given new aids which are subtly an improvement on the older ones. They are neater, not as noticeable and less inclined to blow off in a high wind. They are also much less likely to spring off when I remove my face mask causing not a few sniggers from anyone witnessing this. The best thing of all is they enable me to join a gathering and hear what nearly everyone is saying. I haven’t tried them in a restaurant yet and perhaps I have learned a little lipreading over the years and can tell from expressions what people mean (mostly) but these new aids have made me much more confident in accepting invitations I had begun to refuse. I can also hear birdsong like never before. Perhaps it is the pitch of the calls but it makes me stop frequently to listen and enjoy. Though, the house sparrows in my yard occasionally make such a racket I yell at them to shut up when I am trying to have a chat with someone.

Technology has changed the lives of deaf people beyond anything else. I remember my mother being extremely amusing about an uncle who used a hearing ‘trumpet’ but I’ll bet it wasn’t funny for him. Now we have digitally enhanced hearing aids, lights that go on everywhere when the doorbell rings, amplified phones, texts, whatsapp, etc.; Bluetooth that streams lectures and phone calls direct to hearing aids, cochlear implants and much more.

The Royal National Institute for the Deaf also publishes a wonderfully positive magazine every month or so, explaining the latest research and technology. It has lots of stories about deaf people who have made a success of their lives in spite of not being able to hear, such as the lovely Rose Aylin-Ellis who won Strictly Come Dancing in 2021.

14 million people in the UK have hearing difficulties and this number is expected to rise exponentially as we all live longer. I feel that generally more sympathy is being shown to the condition and most people now know that when talking to a deaf person, it’s not helpful to shout or cover one’s mouth with a hand. Deaf people cannot hear round corners and find it difficult when someone is talking and facing away from them.

Being deaf is tiring and frustrating sometimes but it is not the end of the world. It is a great excuse if one is on the receiving end of an annoying telephone call, “I am sorry but I cannot hear what you are saying – would you mind putting that in writing?” End of.

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