Life in the "What'd You Say?" Lane


by Beth Levine
Photograph: Illustrated by Dan Page

I’m watching Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and as usual, actor Vincent D’Onofrio is mumbling. Or I think he’s mumbling. What’s definite is that his lines are all lost on me.

“What did he say?” I ask my husband for not the first time this evening.

“Shhhh! I just missed an important plot point!” he snaps.

Yeah, well, that makes two of us, pal.

At the end of the show, he says, “Would you please get your hearing checked?”

Nope, I will not. Even though this scenario seems to be occurring more frequently—at movies, parties, plays and even at work—I tell myself my hearing is not that bad. I tell myself the problem lies with everyone else—all those people who refuse to speak up and enunciate properly. But the real reason I refuse to see an audiologist is that I will not wear a hearing aid, thank you very much. Only old people wear those, and that just doesn’t jibe with my self-image. I know I’m no teenager, but I’m too vain to accept looking like someone’s grammy. It’s bad enough I wear trifocal glasses to see and sensible shoes to protect my knees. Add in hearing aids and you might as well park me on the front porch in a rocking chair and call it a day.

I’m not the only one who needs to turn up the volume: A new study from the nonprofit EAR Foundation found that people ages 40 to 59 are losing their hearing at faster rates than previous generations, presumably because we were the first to grow up with rock and roll and to use listening devices with in-ear headphones.

But even though hearing loss is becoming much more common, a lot of us are in denial. Of the more than 34 million Americans who suffer from some form of impairment, about 75 percent choose not to get hearing aids, says Sergei Kochkin, PhD, executive director of the Better Hearing Institute. Even those who do eventually seek help are stalling: People often wait several years between the time they first suspect hearing loss and when they do something about it, says Susan Erler, PhD, coordinator of the Doctor of Audiology program at Northwestern University.

This means many midlife women are operating with faulty information. “I always assume I hear things right and go on,” says Jennifer Truitt, 45, of Campbell, California. She’s sticking to that story, even after embarrassing herself at a family dinner, when her 20-year-old stepson mentioned having read that dogs could smell one part in a million. “I said I didn’t understand how a dog could smell one fart in a million,” she says. Oops.

While hearing-loss denial sometimes results in comical stories like Truitt’s, it can also take a huge toll on personal relationships and quality of life. When the National Council on the Aging surveyed hearing-impaired adults ages 50 or older, those with untreated hearing loss were more likely to report depression, anxiety and paranoia than those who wore hearing aids.

That’s partly because auditory problems can lead to isolation. Case in point: Before giving in and getting hearing aids, Elizabeth Pace, 50, of Brentwood, Tennessee, struggled in social situations. “People didn’t understand that I didn’t understand them. I needed to have things repeated a lot. If a friend was talking behind me, I didn’t hear her. When people talked with their hands in front of their mouths, I wanted to slap their hands. My husband got irritated because I had to turn up the TV volume so loud. I avoided certain situations—for example, I didn’t go to movies as much as I would have liked because it was too difficult to hear them.”

Gaye Simmons, 54, a chef in Manhattan Beach, California, concurs: “Losing your hearing takes you out of society. I miss subtleties of conversations. I just nod and smile, and hope that’s an appropriate response.”

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