At a loss: the daily challenges of a hearing aid user
Think that hearing aids solve all hearing problems? Think again. As the MRC and the EPSRC launch a package of funding worth £3.5m to improve hearing aid technology, Jean Straus takes us through the daily challenges of a life led with hearing aids.
Last night I went to my local choir’s first rehearsal of the new season. I wore two high-tech hearing aids, which I have on long-term loan from a private healthcare provider. The left one addresses mild hearing loss, the right; mild to moderate.
I put these hearing aids on each morning before I put in my contact lenses or make coffee. With them I can hear birdsong, the crackling of paper, and conversations with one or two people when they’re facing me in a quiet room. Last night however, in the large vaulted hall where the choir rehearsal was held, I could follow most of the melody lines as the choirmaster, Joe, played them on the piano, but I couldn’t make out his instructions.
At the end of the rehearsal Joe explained that he’d be away in a few weeks. I could now hear him, but the joke he made when he lowered his voice, to which everyone else laughed, was lost on me.
Joe is a singer so he’s a good articulator too, so I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. During the evening I pushed the various settings endlessly on my aids, wondering if the amplification for distance, or altering to a setting for watching television, might help, to no avail.
Is my hearing just too bad, I wondered? My hearing has recently been evaluated, and it hasn’t worsened. Perhaps these state-of-the-art hearing aids are not good enough?
Audiologists always tell me that hearing aids are really only made for detecting speech in conversation, which this wasn’t. So perhaps I should just cut my losses and give up choir? Or make the choir take the slack ― getting forty people to enunciate like elocutionists, not allowing anyone to ever interrupt and asking Joe to accompany softly enough for me to hear the melody and lyrics.
Today I was forced to walk out of my spinning class. The aids amplified the already-too-loud music to dangerous levels, and the instructor’s rapid-fire instructions were completely muffled by the music. Why be in a class you can’t follow?
Hearing loss has been linked to dementia, so I try to do the things I enjoy to keep me stimulated. This can be hard when simple things such as laughter at a joke in a lecture, friends interrupting each other in a discussion and even tall ceilings can make me struggle to hear and decipher with my hearing aids.
Sometimes it’s not just struggling to hear, but struggling with extraneous noises ― in restaurants, under a flight path, on public transport ― that are excruciatingly amplified by my aids.
I could take them out ― some of my friends do. But then there would be less noise, less stimulation, and with that brings isolation, which is also dangerous. Leave them in? Then I get cognitive overload as I struggle to understand and deal with what I can extrapolate from the din.
I look at them ― small, discreet, hidden by my hair. The batteries are fiddly, the mechanism looks breakable even though I still have dexterity. If they were visible, people might be more considerate, or treat me like an older person to whom they have to shout. Or they might become impatient when I still don’t hear, which is frequent. Has design superseded functionality? Did anyone ask a hearing-impaired person what they wanted their hearing aid to look like?
My friend Julie and I are ambling by the seaside; as ever, she’s agreed to walk on my left (unlike Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who tells Mark Antony, “Come over to my right side, because this ear is deaf”). We pop into a shop where I enquire about a product; while the salesperson answers, my hearing aid beeps to indicate the battery is dying. I now need to apologise to the sales person and Julie, take my leave, and go off in search of a table on which to adjust my equipment.
I can’t wear my hearing aids all night; it’s unhealthy and the batteries finish too quickly that way. No dawn chorus for me then, I lose part of the spring. But I also miss the raucous party in my building. Neighbours called the police while I slept through. Lucky me. Or not?
So these are my challenges, and therefore challenges to researchers. I want to tune out background noise, deal with different acoustics, and be free of problems of batteries. I want people who use hearing aids to be involved in their design. I look forward to seeing what they come up with.
Two funding calls for hearing aid research are now open for applications. The Lifelong Health and Wellbeing Hearing Aid Research Networks call aims to bring together academic, industrial and clinical experts from across the health, biological, engineering and physical sciences.
The EPSRC-funded call for research proposals will support multidisciplinary, academically led research collaborations seeking to develop disruptive technologies for use in hearing aid devices.