When I went to the bedside cabinet drawer on Monday to change my hearing aid batteries, I had just two left (they last about 7 days). Next day I rang my service provider who said they would post some to me, as per the terms of their 12-month contract. Australians dispose of approximately 156 million lithium hearing aid batteries per year. That is a serious amount of lithium in the landfill. Some hearing aid manufacturers now sell rechargeable hearing aid pods (the batteries last for a year). It’s about bloody time.
It started off being wryly amusing. For years I thought Jimi Hendrix was singing, “S’cuse me while I kiss this guy”, (now the name of a website which chronicles mis-heard lyrics). Is Billy Joel really singing, “You made the rice, I made the gravy”? Does the line in Toto’s Africa sound like “There’s nothing that a hundred men on Mars could ever do?” Or Canada’s national anthem – “Oh, Canada, we stand on cars and freeze?”
After five years of asking people to repeat what they said and seeking refuge in my favourite three words – “What?’ “Pardon” or “Mm,” I had my hearing tested.
Six months into the quixotic world of hearing devices, I have mixed feelings; good days and bad days and also much for which to be thankful. Gone are the days when I thought my wife said “Hearty Elephant” when she actually meant “hardly relevant”. I could go on, but you hard of hearing blokes out there know about which I speak.
If you are losing the high frequencies (and we all do as we age), if it gets too bad you won’t discern between words like ‘list’ and ‘fist’, you will turn the TV up louder than your partner will like and you’ll avoid going out to places where people gather.
But hearing loss is not just a problem for older people. The Ipod generation and those who frequent dance clubs and rock concerts are at high risk of damaging their hearing. There’s a lot of difference between the 50 to 60 dB level of normal conversation and the 140 dB pumped out by some of the world’s big stadium bands.
Phillip Adams is one of the few mainstream writers who confessed in public to needing hearing aids. Adams canvassed themes with which I had become entirely familiar, through five years of denial and hogging the TV remote.
“I developed a preference for foreign films with subtitles,” Adams wrote in The Australian Magazine, December 2012, adding that he rather enjoyed the self-censorship which came with deafness “..allowing me to ignore a bombardment of banal conversation or unattractive views”.
BHA (Before Hearing Aids), we’d be watching the splendid US spy thriller Homeland (with subtitles) which might read “birds chirping” or “dog barking in distance”. I could not hear those sorts of noises at all. AHA (after Hearing Aids), as the audiologist warned me, flushing the toilet evoked memories of a trip to Niagara Falls in 2010. I no longer heard faint chirping in the Bottle Brush tree next to our front veranda – I could hear and identify honeyeaters, wrens, whip birds, cat birds as well as the sound of frogs and the creek gently running at the bottom of our block, 100m away.
They say it can take your brain a year to adjust to being able to hear high frequencies again. The audiologist patiently heard the problems I reported when playing guitar or whistling. I complained it sounded like an effects pedal and there was feedback and other unpleasant sounds. After some tweaking of compression and other frequencies, these problems diminished. Now I am finding the handiest thing about these devices is the volume button. I turn it down if people’s voices sound brassy and loud up close and up when, say, listening to a speaker in an auditorium. Oh and the wonderful music programme button – four-part harmonies and fiddle/mandolin solos never sounded so sweet.
The amazing thing, considering the estimated 1.45 million Australian who have hearing aids, is why there is so little dissent about the disproportionate cost. Even mid-range hearing aids can set you back $3,000 each and if your hearing loss is serious or your job depends on hearing every word, you’ll be in double that figure in no time. Meanwhile, you can go to a computer shop and walk out with the latest Mac laptop for less than $2,000 and enough computer power to run an international online business. Or you can use a smart phone’s GPS, telecommunications suite, camera, video, skype, email, internet access and hundreds of apps for no money at all. Just sign here and pay your bill every month.
While hearing aids fall into the category of a big ticket retail item, it pays to shop around. There are sales-oriented hearing clinics out there which will lure you in with a free assessment and then push you fairly hard to sign a contract.
I got assessed by a couple of private clinics then went with the Federal Government’s voucher system (for the over-65s), opting to pay for a “top-up”. My mid-range, programmable hearing aids (I have two) cost me $3,400 and the government paid the rest.
Choice magazine surveyed 525 people to find the main reason people get hearing aids is to overcome social disconnection and isolation. But half of the people interviewed had problems with their hearing aids and one is six were dissatisfied, so it is no simple fix.
Choice said people also shop around online, citing a member who was quoted $12,000 for a pair of top-end hearing aids and ended up buying online from a UK retailer for about $4,250. The retailer programmed the hearing aids according to his audiogram. The member later found a local clinic to service his aids for $100 to $200 per appointment.
There can be warranty issues taking this approach, but increasingly, older Australians are starting to add hearing aids to the list when they go to Thailand or the Philippines for dental work or knee replacements.
Whatever the options, I can say I’d rather have my hearing aids, imperfections and all, than go back to the muddy pond that was once my hearing.
Meanwhile, for those of you who do not (yet) suffer hearing loss, consider this. Occupational health and safety advocates nonprofitrisk.org says the permissible top limit for noise exposure over an eight-hour period is 90 decibels. If you don’t know what that means, here’s a short list:
• 80 decibels: city traffic, manual machine, tools;
• 90 decibels: lawn mower, motorcycle, tractor;
• 100 decibels: woodworking shop, factory machinery;
• 110 decibels: chainsaw, leaf blower;
• 120 decibels: ambulance siren, heavy machinery, jet plane on runway;
• 130 decibels: jackhammer, power drill.
So if you’ll recall the pangram we cited in the first paragraph. If you’ve got moderate hearing loss, Australian Hearing says this is what you will hear:
__e _i_ brown _o_ jum_over _e _azy dog.
Scary isn’t it!