Hear, hear

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When I realized one was missing, I didn’t panic. Well, not at first. My wife Toi and I were staying in Vera House at the Chautauqua Institution, that paradise of Victorian homes on a lake near Jamestown, New York. Our room was tiny, only a bed, chest of drawers, a microwave next to a small sink and bathroom with shower. How could I lose a tiny hearing aid in such a small space?

Granted, it was my fault in the first place this thing went missing. I usually keep both aids in a case. Not only this little vacation, though. It was only midweek. I was taking a drawing class at the institution’s famous art school. I sorely needed to hear what our teacher, an art professor from American University, was saying to the four of us in the class, especially when he was just talking about my drawing.

Oh, failing to hear Don wasn’t the only problem by not having the hearing aid for my right ear. The loss would limit my enjoyment of everything else going on at this amazing campus, such as daily interviews by Krista Tippett at the Hall of Philosophy, an opera one night, a symphony, a film featuring a Holocaust survivor and conversations with all kinds of people throughout the week.

It must have been Tuesday night. Maybe Wednesday. I put the darn thing with the other hearing aid in plain sight on the dresser. This was my routine since we arrived at Chautauqua on Saturday. So for a few days, I was tuned in to the rest of the world. But when I reached for the second hearing aid that morning, it wasn’t where I expected to find it.

Then the questions: “Did you look..?” “Did you check the wastebasket?” “Could it be on the floor behind the dressed?”

We moved the dresser. (I would have moved heaven and earth.) I shook out the clothes that had been piled on the dresser. Nothing fell out. No, that’s not right. A safety pin fell to the floor. I didn’t panic, although I had good reason to. The thing is, a serious hearing loss is a real handicap. Without the hearing aids, you turn the TV up so loud, it drives anyone else from the room. Without the hearing aids, you don’t hear the birds as you jog in the park. And without the aids, you might as well not go to concerts, much less plays. You’re always asking people to repeat themselves. Some folks aren’t very tolerant about doing that either. The second time around, the statement drips with sarcasm.

For older people, at risk of isolating themselves anyway, a hearing loss that’s not treated accentuates the isolation and can lead to depression. Even today’s hearing aids, although expensive, don’t always make everything crystal clear. You may insist on getting seats at concerts and plays close to the performers. You may still ask people to repeat what they just said. To minimize this communication problem, Toni and I usually sit close to each other at restaurants.

Yet without a doubt, hearing aids help you stay in the game of life, reconnecting an older person with loved ones and friends and what’s going on in your community. Which explains why missing one of these devices is a bigger deal than missing a pair of socks of your slippers. It’s a quality of life issue.

We kept looking in our room. I couldn’t imagine how it could be anywhere else. I called Julie who owns our apartment house. She showed up to help us rummage through the garbage in back of the building. I contacted my audiologist back in Fort Wayne.

“No problem,” Tammy, the administrator assured me.

“We’ll overnight it.”

“Just tell me the color and the address.”

I headed for the Chautauqua post office to find out the best way for Tammy to ship the replacement hearing aid. I contacted Tammy again, gave her the address and felt relieved that I’d have the hearing aid the next day. I also checked with Kathleen at State Farm back home.

“Sorry, Larry. You’re hearing aids aren’t covered.” So it’s true that every silver lining has a cloud.

I went to my drawing class that morning and told my friends of my plight. Thy were sympathetic. But they didn’t promise to speak louder. Back in our room that afternoon, Toni was taking an article of clothing off the hook on the door when she said, “Oh, my goodness.”

The hearing aid had dropped out of the clothing, no doubt caught when that blouse or shirt had been lying on the dresser the night before.

We both were incredulous. The mystery had solved itself. I was overjoyed. It was like Christmas, and my parents had gotten me the very gift I had asked Santa to bring.

I called Tammy. Bu she had already put the replacement hearing aid in the mail. When it arrived at the post office the next day, I just wrote on the package “refused,” and back to Fort Wayne it went. When we got home a few days later, I made sure to pay my audiologist’s office for the shipping. Just twenty or thirty bucks. I was delighted to pay. I so much appreciated Dr. Lowe and Tammy’s response to my plight. Of course, I was relieved not to spend the money for the replacement hearing aid.

It’s just so important, especially for older people, to have one’s hearing tested by a qualified audiologist. Less than 40 percent of people in their 70s have done so, a much smaller number of persons in their 60s. We automatically test newborns and school children. I understand that people are embarrassed to be seen wearing hearing aids. Yet the current aids are nearly invisible. Even if people notice that you’re wearing aids, they’re more likely than not to appreciate that you care enough to hear them. Honestly, I don’t even notice I’m wearing hearing aids.

I imagine besides the embarrassment, the expense remains a major barrier in getting hearing aids for lots of people. Health insurance in many companies covers some of the expense. But it’s a shame that the federal Medicare insurance only pays a portion of the exam and not the big expense, the hearing aids.

The devices have made a huge difference in my life. Hearing loss qualifies in my book as a major handicap. I wish every person who struggles to make sense of what people are saying to them, and to participate in the world around them, would tap into the resources that every community has to get tested and get help, then join the conversation.

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