What Did You Say?


Recently the New York Times reported that the Food and Drug Administration is authorizing over-the- counter sale of hearing aids without a prescription. This is music to my ears – literally – because my hearing aids are life preservers that save me from drowning in a sea of silence. At the same time, it’s been frustrating and infuriating that this salvation has been out of the reach of a large segment of the population because of its cost.

The original $ 2 trillion mega-bill proposed by President Biden included a provision that enabled the federal government to pay for the cost of hearing aids and glasses, but that worthy plan, along with a lot of other critical needs like the child tax credit, fell at Joe Manchin’s hand and seemed a goner for now before the FDA stepped in. Steve Bannon and his anarcho-fascist supporters would like to eradicate agencies like the FDA which he sees as part of the regulation state that interferes with citizens’ right to live free and clear of government controls, like those restricting the right to pollute our air and water but they often serve as forces for good when our legislative branches become paralyzed.

I watched my father struggle with his age-related hearing loss. It was a time when hearing aid technology was still primitive. The devices were big and clunky. They buzzed maddeningly and were unable to distinguish between ambient noise and the speech that the listener wanted to be center stage.  As a result, my father avoided wearing his most of the time, which forced him to drop out of most social conversation, especially in group settings. He was by nature a shy, quiet man, but his impairment sentenced him to additional isolation and withdrawal.

I had his example as a cautionary tale when I started becoming aware of what I was missing. In my classroom, I sometimes saw quizzical looks on students’ faces when I answered what I thought were their questions. There’s evidence that many cases diagnosed as dementia are actually the result of hearing loss. It’s easy to imagine that some of my non sequitur responses could have led my students to suspect I was losing it.  I developed a compensatory strategy of moving through the classroom during Q and A’s so I could situate myself as close to the questioner as possible, but that wasn’t always possible, so I was ready for some technical help.

Vanity is a powerful deterrent to addressing glaring needs. I feared that the hearing aids would announce too loudly that I was getting old. Did I imagine that my students didn’t already have abundant evidence of that fact?Similarly, for many, the cane and the walker don’t appear until the need becomes critical. When I couldn’t avoid it any longer, off I went to the audiologist whose graphs showed the same pattern of age-related loss in both ears that I had inherited from my father.

For reasons of stinginess and sticker shock I came home with only one hearing aid, hoping that would do the trick, which, of course it didn’t. My next doctor was bewildered. “If you went to the shoe store, would you buy only one shoe?” That embarrassing question drove me to Costco which was offering a pair of hearing aids for about $1400, a far cry from estimates I received elsewhere that ranged from $4 to 8 thousand. The Costco price may look like a bargain but considering the percentage of the population living without reserves to cover even a minor car repair, it’s still a prohibitive number. That’s why the FDA decision is such a big deal. It still doesn’t provide full coverage, but it puts the price of hearing aids within reach of a larger segment of the population.

I still miss a lot that my wife has to fill me in on and phone conversations are sometimes challenging, especially those involving commercial business when the voice of the person at the other hand is accented or slurred, but for the most part I can hold my own, thanks to Mr. Costco. I reach for my hearing aids as soon as I sit up in the morning. Until they’re in place, I’m inside my cocoon, just barely able to hear the radio alarm on my wife’s side of the bed signaling the start of the day. Now I’m ready to confront the horrors the morning news brings.

 It’s important to add that people with more serious hearing impairment are not going to benefit from these new low over-the-counter deals. They’re still going to need more special attention and more sophisticated devices, but this is a large leap forward.

Writing this piece about hearing has brought me back to my Brooklyn elementary school classroom where every year people arrived with a set of earphones and a console they set up at the front of the room.  We were each provided with a score card on which we wrote answers to the instructions broadcast to our earphones. “Now write the numbers you hear in the first column.” The volume decreased as we moved farther down the column, just as the letters on the eye chart disappeared into a blur toward the bottom. For us it was a game of sorts. Of course, there were always a couple of kids in the school who already wore heavy hearing devices, but what could that possibly have to do with us?

 As I wrote that last line, my right hearing aid emitted the sweet sound it makes when it’s time to change the battery. What did you say? Just give me a minute to get a fresh replacement.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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