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Hard of hearing for the holidays

If your dad seems a bit standoffish or withdrawn at your holiday gatherings this year, or if your great aunt keeps asking people to quit mumbling and repeat themselves, they may not be persnickety. Those behaviors can be signs of hearing loss.

That was the message I got in a pitch from a p.r. person whose client wanted to talk with me about how hearing loss can be socially isolating for people -- something that might become apparent during family gatherings this season -- and how hearing loss can be addressed. All interesting, useful stuff, for sure.

But to heck with Dad and the great aunts. The hearing loss I'm most worried about right now is my own.

Years of listening to really, really loud rock music has exacted a price: In some situations, I can't make out what people are saying to me.

When I go to yoga class and try to enjoy a one-on-one pre-practice conversation with a fellow student, I strain to comprehend above the background noise of other people's chatter. When I went out for a holiday lunch with a friend last week and a large group of boisterous people sat at the table next to ours, I found myself practically lip-reading through the meal. In fact, I find myself nodding a lot when people talk to me these days, pretending I know what they mean when in fact I can't even hear all their words. By the way, I'm 49 years old.

Dr. Thomas Powers, vice president of audiology and compliance for Siemens Hearing Instruments made the case that hearing loss usually can be thoroughly countered by use of a hearing aid. (To his credit, he never mentioned, much less recommended, a Siemens hearing aid during our conversation.)

He acknowledged that many people avoid seeking hearing aids because of the devices' fuddy-duddy stigma, but points out that today's high-tech instruments can be concealed behind the ears. You'd have to really be looking for them to know they were there. You can even hook them up to your Bluetooth these days!

Me, I could care less about how hearing aids might make me look. I'm not getting my hearing checked right now because I'm afraid someone's going to tell me I need them. And I can't afford them.

Powers tells me that although an estimated 35 million people in the U.S. have hearing loss severe enough to hamper communication, only 2 million hearing aids are sold each year -- half of them as replacements for worn-out aids -- and only 6 million to 8 million aids are in use in this country in a given year. That sounds like a lot of people doing without.

Powers confirms that most insurance plans, like mine, don't cover the cost of hearing aids. And those costs are substantial, as they include not just the instruments themselves -- which can run anywhere from $1,200 to $3,000 per ear -- but also the several doctor visits required to diagnose the hearing loss, custom fit the hearing aids and adjust them after a trial run. Plus, the aids need replacing every five to seven years.

"The vast majority of hearing aids in the U.S. are privately paid for," Powers notes. "And they're one of the few medical devices excluded under Medicare."

Of course, my husband and I would bite the bullet and pay up if my hearing seemed to interfere with my ability to, say, drive safely, or if I had trouble hearing during phone conversations, or if I became the spouse who kept insisting we turn the volume up on the TV. But for now, since my loss seems to affect only those situations in which I'm trying to focus on a single voice when there's lots of other noise nearby, I'll muddle through.

Let's hear your tales of hearing-loss woe. And make your voice heard in today's poll.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  December 14, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Aging , Chronic Conditions , Disabilities  
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Within the last few months, Consumer Reports had an excellent edition about hearing aids and the associated visits to doctors. I highly recommend reading that to get information on all of the things to consider.

A wonderful novel, "Deaf Sentence" by David Lodge, gives the reader a feel for that increasing social isolation that comes with hearing loss.

Posted by: drl97 | December 14, 2009 7:48 AM | Report abuse

I was in my 30’s when I was diagnosed with otosclerosis. The options were hearing aids or surgery. Hearing aids are not covered by insurance but the surgery is. (Explain that one to me)
Anyway I had surgery in both ears but on my 50s I was losing hearing once again.
Not only is this so isolating but it had a very negative impact on my work. Even though I explained over and over to my boss that I had problems hearing she would not allow me to use email over face to face or phone conversations. I find it harder to understand people with heavy accents and in the high tech world usually at least half the people are from other countries. I had a hard time communicating and missed important points at meetings. This led to bad performance reviews and I finally left the job.
Without good hearing I stopped going to church and any other social functions.
Once again choices were surgery (paid for) or hearing aids (not paid for). The doctors did not thing surgery would help as much the second time so I used up a lot of savings to get hearing aids. (I will never be able to replace them)
Hearing aids are not like glasses. They do not correct hearing only amplify it. So even though I have another job and am able to communicate (still prefer email) I still don’t socialize.

Posted by: mmad2 | December 14, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

My father has hearing aids and still has a great deal of difficulty hearing us under normal, non-crowded situations. He's lost in big crowds, restaurants, any place there is a lot of background noise. It definitely impacts his relationships with family members, especially small grandchildren who don't quite understand that their Grandpa can't hear them and can't hear over them.

Posted by: StrollerMomma | December 14, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

Check out for resources on hearing loss, hearing aids and coping strategies.

When it comes to hearing aids, I have found that you get what you pay for. Top-quality digital programmable hearing aids can filter out background noise and focus on the voices and sounds in the foreground -- what you want to hear. They run $2000+ (each) and typically need to be repaired a few times over their 5- to 6-year lifespan.

If your hearing is really important to your job, family and/or relationships, don't go to Wal-Mart or Costco - go to a licensed audiologist. The investment will be worth it if 1) you are willing to wear your hearing aids daily and 2) you can work with your audiologist to make sure the aids are working for you.

Posted by: petjam | December 14, 2009 6:01 PM | Report abuse

fr mmad2:

>...Not only is this so isolating but it had a very negative impact on my work. Even though I explained over and over to my boss that I had problems hearing she would not allow me to use email over face to face or phone conversations. I find it harder to understand people with heavy accents and in the high tech world usually at least half the people are from other countries. I had a hard time communicating and missed important points at meetings. This led to bad performance reviews and I finally left the job. ...

I'd have gone straight to HR, and if they didn't help, to your state EDD or OSHA. OSHA would have had a field day with your boss. Denying you accomodations to properly do your job is ILLEGAL.

Glad you found a better job, though!

Posted by: Alex511 | December 14, 2009 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Saying that "people who can't hear pose dangers to themselves and society" is actually an overgeneralization (think of all the people born deaf who have survived just fine). However, the hard of hearing individual and people who communicate with that person certainly do benefit when that hard of hearing person can hear and communicate as effectively as possible. Because ten to fifteen percent of the population has hearing loss and the majority of hard of hearing people are under the age of 65, the lack of coverage of hearing aids means that at any given time, we are facing significant communication problems in the workplace, in public, and within families all the time. As a practical measure, we ought to encourage people to function as best as they can to reduce unnecessary mistakes and stress, some of which could indeed be disastrous---but as a nation, we're not doing that. Isn't that short-sighted?

Posted by: dmulvany | December 14, 2009 7:23 PM | Report abuse

The statement attributed to Dr. Powers--"made the case that hearing loss usually can be thoroughly countered by use of a hearing aid."--is *incredibly* misleading. To be frank, total bull!

Hearing aids are just that--aids. They DO NOT "correct" hearing the way glasses/contact lenses correct vision. Even when I got my first hearing aids--in my early 40s--I still had problems discriminating speech and using the phone.

The poll statement--"people who can't hear pose dangers to themselves and society"--is terrible phrasing! *My* hearing loss is a danger to NO ONE. This statement has nothing to do with with whether hearing aids should be covered by insurance.

12 years after I got my first set of hearing aids, I could no longer continue to work in a demanding technical environment with my now severe hearing loss and I filed a claim with the disability insurance company for both short and long term disability--premiums which I had paid for years thinking I had some protection.

I had hoped that the short and long term disability insurance benefits would help me to find training for a job where my hearing loss would not be a factor but my claim was denied by the disability insurance company in very large part because my employer did not support my claim.

My current hearing aids are more than 8 years old and should be replaced but I cannot afford the replacement cost--$4000.

As my hearing has deteriorated--from mild loss to a profound loss--so has my participation in the world because the work involved in trying to understand what people are saying is so exhausting. I have less and less contact with people every day.

There are practical things I avoid like making an appointment to have things like maintenance on my heating and air conditioning system because it's so stressful and difficult for me because I can't understand what is being said. I often end up paying more for services because changing to a less expensive option would require dealing with people I can't hear.

It would be wonderful if insurance covered the cost of hearing aids--fully covered, not some paltry $100 or $200.

Posted by: tlbepson | December 14, 2009 10:54 PM | Report abuse

I know quite a few people that suffer from the loss of hearing. It is unfortunate when the person chooses not to use helpful devices because they miss out on so many lovely sounds and great conversations. The idea of a hearing aid, and what the media often perceives hearing aids as, can distract from the reality that these devices may help in someone's everyday life.

Posted by: GeriCareFinder | December 17, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

People with mild or moderate hearing loss don't need the most expensive hearings aids that are suited for severe losses. You can buy a less expensive pair of hearings aids with only one program and fewer features for half the price of the more expensive ones, and be very satisfied with your purchase, especially if you mostly need your hearings aids for work situations. In fact, very good hearings aids are sold at Costco and Sam's Club, manufactured under a different name by the top hearing aid manufacturers (all of which are European, interestingly enough). Also, use your FSA account for the purchase, exactly what I did.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | December 18, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

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