Can You Hear Me Now?

Sometimes being heard starts with persuading loved ones to have their hearing checked.

Jimmy Magahern | May 3, 2012, 2:34 p.m.

In other words, these are not your grandfather’s hearing aids. “When I was a kid, hearing aids were those big banana things that went behind your ear,” Hutchcraft recalls. “Nobody really wanted one of those, and you kind of felt sorry for the person that had to have one. And unfortunately, that’s still the image that comes to mind for a lot of people when they think about hearing aids. But today’s hearing aids are inconspicuous and virtually invisible.”

And even, dare we say it, kinda cool.

“My father wears a hearing aid with the Bluetooth technology,” says the 45-year-old businessman, who also wears a hearing aid himself. “He can connect right to a TV, where the information isn’t traveling from a speaker to a microphone; it’s traveling over the Bluetooth system directly to the hearing aid. And he can connect directly to a cell phone that way as well. Pretty impressive!”

Family Affair

If you’re beginning to experience hearing loss, chances are your spouse will feel the effects of it long before you do.

“Family members and friends are often the first to notice,” says Dr. Linda Norrix, a clinical professor of audiology in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Because age-related hearing loss is often a gradual thing, Norrix says, we may dismiss the signs in our own behavior — like turning up the volume on the TV, or asking people to repeat what they’ve said — that should clue us in that it’s time to get a hearing check-up. But those around us will surely pick up on the changes.

“Often we may not realize the impact that hearing loss has on our significant others,” she says.

Until they begin to shout back, that is. Scharber says he typically starts out with a new patient by asking them, “What brings you in?” Nine times out of 10, he says, it’s literally the wife who complains she’s not being listened to, or the husband who gripes he has to leave the room whenever she starts cranking up the TV.

For that reason, Scharber says he likes new patients to come in with their spouses. “Sometimes our spouses tattle on us, and they’ll offer a perspective that you might not be aware of.” More importantly, our spouses’ voices — along with the voices of our children and grandchildren — can provide a good benchmark of what we need to be hearing.

“We don’t have 20/20 correction when it comes to hearing aids for inner ear nerve loss,” says Scharber, referring to the most common form of age-related hearing impairment. “So we begin by assessing what does the patient really need to be hearing in their particular environment.”

In his offices, Hutchcraft likes to enlist the spouses in what’s called “speech mapping” — essentially, using a husband’s or wife’s voice to determine what sounds the patient is mishearing on a daily basis.

“What I’ll do is I’ll have, say, Mr. Johnson trying out a set of hearing aids and they’ll be hooked up to the speech mapping equipment, and then I’ll have Mrs. Johnson start talking,” he says. “And then, looking at the audiogram, I can see exactly what parts of Mrs. Johnson’s speech he’s not hearing. For example, maybe he’s missing consonant sounds — the s’s and the f’s and the p’s and so on. Those are high frequency, soft sounds — unlike vowel sounds that come from your vocal chords and are generally low frequency — and they’re usually the first sounds we have trouble hearing. So maybe she’s saying ‘cheat’ and he’s hearing ‘feet.’ Well, using the programming equipment, I can adjust the frequencies that he’s not getting until we can see that, as she’s speaking, he is getting all parts of her speech.”

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