Mum, Dad: why won’t you get a hearing aid?

March 15, 2015

The television is blaring. The Islamic State propaganda screams from the set. My mother is watching the news. She’s left her hearing aids in the bedroom. Hearing aids, the joke goes, can be found in three places – in the ear, behind the ear, and in a cupboard.  My mother is visiting from Perth and she’s precious to me. I don’t want to raise a touchy subject. She dislikes her hearing aids.  But we can’t take it anymore. “Mum, we need to turn the TV down. We’ll wake the baby up next door.”  Reluctantly she goes to get her new aids which were supposed to be an improvement on the old pair.

Why won’t they get hearing aids? It’s a common complaint of adult children. And then later, why won’t they wear them? The comical side to hearing loss wears thin: “Dad, do you need new socks?”  “What do I need a box for?”  It took years for my mother to get her hearing tested. That’s normal.  Australians suffer hearing loss for six to ten years on average before they’ll do anything about it.

“If you have hearing loss, the TV’s not loud for you; you might be able to get on quite nicely at home for quite a while,” says Louise Hickson, professor of audiology at The University of Queensland.

Hearing loss is no laughing matter. Six in ten Australians over the age of 60 are affected; over the age of 70, it’s seven in ten with men at greater risk because of their work lives. Worryingly, only 20 per cent of people over 60 with diagnosed hearing loss seek appropriate help, even though Australia has one of the world’s best systems of subsidised assistance. If we’re meant to stay at work well into our 60s, things will have to change.

Unlike glasses, hearing aids aren’t chic. No matter how small hearing aids have become, there’s still resistance to them. Denial is a big factor: I hear what I want to hear. The grandchildren are mumblers. Everyone talks too quickly. Mum’s friend complains the cinema hasn’t got the volume right. But actually volume isn’t the main problem, as author Katherine Bouton writes in Shouting Won’t Help: Why I – and 50 million other Americans – Can’t Hear You. People can hear, they just can’t understand. Mixing up consonants – as in the box/socks example – is typical.

“There’s a big stigma attached to hearing aids,” says Professor Hickson. “It’s a visible sign of ageing. No matter how old you are, you don’t want to be seen that way. And some people do respond differently to you.” Not being able to hear properly is a terrible disability. It causes huge frustration and increasing social isolation, and people can be regarded as stupid or ‘losing it.’ But all the nagging in the world from adult children is unlikely to shift parents’ negative attitudes to hearing aids.

Professor Hickson’s new research examined the factors behind people’s resistance. Basically people have to be ready for hearing aids. They need the right attitude, to believe they’ll benefit and manage. Severity of hearing loss is less significant than high motivation. “I had to resist the temptation with my own mother not to push her before she was ready,” Professor Hickson told me.

Janette Thorburn, head of clinical support at Australian Hearing, the government hearing assistance service, thinks it doesn’t hurt if children gently nudge their parents in the right direction: “More by pointing out what a parent is missing out on: ‘It’s a pity Mum you’re not going to coffee with the girls anymore.’”

Knowing someone with a good experience of hearing aids can be a big influence. And once parents make even a tentative move for help, adult children should be supportive, Professor Hickson says, praising them for their greater engagement in conversation, and life generally when wearing their aids.

Hearing aids do make a difference.  Janette Thorburn recalls a particular couple in her office for the husband’s final hearing aid check. When she asked how things had gone, the wife started crying. “You’ve changed our lives,” the wife said. “This is the best our marriage has been in 45 years. He’s active, he’s taking an interest in the grandchildren; he’d closed himself off because it was so hard to communicate; all I was doing was yelling at him to get the message across.” Then the husband burst into tears, and Janette started crying, too. “The staff saw what was happening through the windows,” Janette said, “and came in to see if we were all right.”

The technology has improved hugely. My 67-year-old friend Alan, a victim of industrial hearing loss, attests to the advances in the seven years since he became an initiate. “Without my new hearing aids I’d miss 95 per cent of things going on,” he said. “They make a huge difference. They’re still nowhere near perfect but it’s better.” My Mum, too, always wears hers in group situations. But there’s a way to go. The best aids cost a prohibitive $20,000 a pair; and design leaps are needed to make them cool to baby boomers.

We live in a noisy world. Loud music in restaurants, gyms, and hairdressers assaults us. Mumblers and whisperers, and people who shout at the hard-of-hearing don’t help. Hearing aids alone can’t do the job. Greater awareness in the community, care and getting the volume right are needed, too, don’t you think?

What are your hearing aid stories? Do you agree the world is noisier? Do leave a comment.

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