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At a loss: the daily challenges of a hearing aid user

Jean Straus (Image copyright: Jean Straus)

Jean Straus (Image copyright: Jean Straus)

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.

Jean Straus

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.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. sara midda #

    Jean, I understand more about what you have to deal with. I wish you could hear dawn chorus and your moving piece moves towards that happening.

    September 16, 2014
  2. Rica Bar-Sela Hed #

    It is so well written, and yes, people with hearing problems should be heard when hearing equipment is planned. And people who do not have hearing problems should be more patient and understanding. This is a very important article. Thank you Jean.

    September 19, 2014
  3. Chris Mougne #

    Thanks for this beautifully written, vivid, piece, Jean. I confess I had no idea the extent of the challenge of hearing loss, so appreciate your sharing your daily frustrations. I hope it is picked up by those involved in hearing aid technology. It seems remarkable that we can put men into deep space, but haven’t yet resolved the specific technical problems you describe which must be faced by countless people across the globe every day.

    September 20, 2014
  4. Mark Leonard #

    How true that all rings Jean, the inaudible conductor, the lost punchlines, the whispering lecturer, the reader who speaks too far away from the microphone. At the moment digital hearing aids, wonderful as they are in domestic conversation, do not seem able to address the problem of hearing what the words are in larger spaces. Perhaps the project can help find a different approach to the current technology, which seems to have reached its limits.

    September 20, 2014
  5. Gabby Fleming #

    What a very honest and real account of dealing with this impairment. We take so much of our own health for granted and just having these every day sounds taken away from you is cruel I think. However, it is what it is and I would also be trying to raise awareness as you are bravely doing. I admire your efforts and hope that there is something that works better in the very near future for you.

    September 24, 2014
  6. Dinah Yessne #

    Jeep – A wonderful article. I’ve forwarded it to my husband and brother as well as two female friends who are hearing aid wearers. I know I am headed that direction myself, and your article certainly enforces the intentionally slow pace at which I do. It’s ridiculous that these problems can’t be solved!

    September 25, 2014
  7. Sophie Siebert #

    Moving and meaningful, Jean. I am slightly surprised at the imperfections of sound imperfection, though. I do editing/transcription of speeches and interviews for an international political website. Occasionally the sound files I receive have horrendous background noise, just because mechanical sounds are picked up better than natural ones, and muffled voices. But we can send the files away to be “fixed,” so that the voice is clarified and the background noise diminished. That sounds like the basis for a good hearing aid. It certainly suggests that the technology already exists for one. Here’s hoping that your piece will make clear exactly what is needed.

    September 26, 2014
  8. Anne Wozencraft #

    This is a great article, Jean – full of insights into the everyday challenges that you face. If an acoustics engineer, an audiologist and a designer were to work with you and others with hearing loss to address these challenges, I think there could be a real breakthrough.

    September 27, 2014
  9. Robin Wickes #

    Hi Jean, What an interesting and thought-provoking piece you’ve written.

    You’re right, of course. Hearing aid technology leaves a lot to be desired even in 2014. It’s come on leaps and bounds since the bad old days of analogue aids. But the modern digital technology still has plenty of scope for improvement , especially when it comes to music.

    My current hearing aids, prescribed by the NHS for my moderate deafness, do really weird things. Take Abba, for instance. I know from the days before I began to lose my hearing exactly how their records are meant to sound. There’s a bright, prominent melody, usually sung by the blonde singer, backed up with a softer harmony line, usually performed by the brunette. These days, though, when I wear my hearing aids, the harmony part comes across loud and clear but I really have to struggle to hear the melody as well. At first I thought it must be a problem with my cassette player. Or perhaps my 35-year old tape had started to decompose. But no. If I take my aids out and put my ear close to the cassette player with the volume turned up, it sounds just like it used to.

    It occurred to me that I should really go back to Audiology and get them to retune my aids. But actually I’m quite enjoying this new listening experience, even though I suppose I’m mis-hearing rather than hearing. I’ve dug out my old Beatles LPs and most of the songs sound unrecognisable compared with the way they used to sound, but nevertheless it’s very enjoyable to listen to Paul when I should be hearing John and vice versa.

    At the moment I’m waiting for a call from Audiology inviting me in to collect a new pair of aids. I hope they’re better than my current ones in terms of things like hearing conversation above background noise. Perhaps they’ll even let me hear music as the performers intended it to be heard. If so, though, I think I’ll hang on to my old ones so that I can still listen to this alternative version instead.

    September 28, 2014
  10. Joanna Turner #

    Jean this is a really well-written article. I enjoyed reading it and can identify with the problems you describe.

    It sounds very similar to my husband’s experiences when he was a hearing aid user. He would avoid noisy situations and anywhere with loud background noise. I have lost count of the amount of times that we walked into a restaurant, for instance, only to find that it was too noisy for him to cope with and we would have to walk out again straightaway. Social situations and parties were a nightmare for him, so he used to avoid them.

    He has recently had a cochlear implant. He can hear so much better and have everyday conversations, which were becoming increasingly impossible for him before. It takes a lot of the stress and anxiety away from both of us. It’s not perfect but so much better than when he was struggling with his hearing aid.

    September 29, 2014

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