Is Your Age-Related Hearing Loss Making You Feel Like an Idiot?

It’s your fault you didn’t hear what was said….You weren’t paying attention….You’ve changed….You can’t keep up any longer….You’re old! 

Has age robbed you of your ability to keep up with conversations? I’m not here to sell you a hearing aid. I’m here to tell you that you’re not an idiot when you don’t understand what is said to you. You haven’t lost your grip or turned into an ancient crone overnight. You’re still you and you need to make sure folks understand that.

I didn’t lose my hearing as the result of aging, although I do admit it has gotten worse over the last few years. I have spent decades navigating the world without normal hearing. That’s why I want you, as someone who has developed hearing difficulties later in life, to understand that how you handle this can make a difference. I also want you to know that you have rights and protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act when you find yourself in a serious situation where your ability to understand what is being said to you is compromised.

Most people who used to hear normally often tend to apologize when they realize they can no longer follow conversations. Part of that is due to the perceptions of and the reactions from many people with normal hearing. Nothing will make you feel old faster than losing your hearing, unless you’ve been that way for decades. (For me, it’s my changing eyesight that makes me feel old. Where are them ole granny glasses o’ mine, dagnabbit?)

When your grandson mumbled something about that awesome concert, Suave Dave, did you miss it because you’re an old fogey? Little Skippy thinks so, but that’s because he can’t picture you grooving to Cream, the Stones, or Credence Clearwater Revival back in the days when you were his age, let alone imagine you sporting sideburns hairy enough to look like there were a pair of tarantulas setting up shop in your ears. No, he thinks the reason you two can’t communicate is because you’re old.

And what about you, Savvy Abby, when you go to lunch with the “girls” (all of whom are well over fifty) and you can’t understand what’s being said about the hot and heavy affair Olivia just had with her hunky trainer at the gym, even though the “girls” are using their trademark stage whispers? Do you get that heavy sigh, like you’re just too slow to keep up with them any more, all because you made the cardinal sin of asking them to repeat the gossip?

It’s a lot of work to keep up with people who have normal hearing, but it’s work that’s worth doing. I learned to read lips as a child (oh, yes — you do wind up knowing too many people’s secrets without really trying). I always take a proactive stance. I move closer the source of the sound, even when it means sitting in the front row at a lecture or concert. I watch the person who is speaking to me, looking for facial clues to help me decipher the words I don’t hear. And when I can’t understand what is being said, I speak up.

In your own personal circles, it won’t be easy to come to terms with your hearing loss. It’s a learning curve over time for most families and friends. But in public situations, where you’re conducting business, you can bet your sweet bippy that you have the right to be accommodated.

Recently, I had to conduct business over the phone, something that always makes me cringe. I can never be sure I heard things correctly. (I learned the hard way during a contract negotiation once that it’s necessary to see things in writing.) The moment I began to have difficulty understanding what was said to me, I informed the company representative. The reaction? He talked faster and louder. I asked to speak to someone else, noting that I am hearing-impaired. The second company representative came on the line and did exactly the same thing. By this time, I was fed up in more ways than one. I asked for a supervisor and got bounced to a company representative in another state. The supervisor passed me back to the original two guys, who then bounced me back to the supervisor, who passed me off to a woman in another office in yet another state, who then proceeded to lecture me on how she was there to help me, but I wouldn’t “let” her. Honey, if I can’t understand what you’re saying to me, you’re not accommodating me.

By the time I raised a stink all the way to the corporate office, I finally got someone who actually had been trained to help hearing-impaired people like me. In a very short time, she was able to help me navigate the situation and get it fixed. The irony? She had a thick accent, but because she understood how hearing-impaired people function, she made adjustments so that it was easy for me to follow her conversation. Before we finished our business, I told her that the treatment I received from other employees was unacceptable. She agreed. The company’s official policy is to accommodate hearing-impaired customers, and like many big companies, it has specially-trained personnel for this purpose. Unfortunately, there was a screw-up somewhere in the training process. Thus, the employees I had spoken with earlier thought all they had to do was keep shouting at me and that was accommodation enough. Honey, if I can’t understand what you’re saying to me, you’re not accommodating me.

Why do I tell you about this? You need to understand that when you are conducting business and you have a hearing loss, you may not understand the contractual implications of the conversation you’re having. You could wind up agreeing to something that isn’t what you want. You could possibly be held to that verbal contract you didn’t know you made and that could prove to be an expensive mistake. That’s why you need to be sure you understand the conversation you are having.

The company I was dealing with had changed my phone service without my permission during an “upgrade” of the system. The young employees who were trying to field my call were prepared to switch things around, deleting this and that, but not in ways that I wanted or needed. Had I agreed to let them proceed without getting that clarification, it would have been a costly disaster. And If I hadn’t eventually found someone to accommodate my hearing loss, there would have been no way to fix what the well-meaning employees did.

Many people don’t understand hearing loss or how it affects everyday life. But when your ability to make arrangements with utility companies, service providers, medical facilities, and other critical businesses are negatively impacted, you really do have to stand up for yourself, by recognizing and exercising your rights under the ADA. Unfortunately, you sometimes have to kick and scream when people don’t feel they need to accommodate your hearing loss.

At the drive-up window of the bank today, the usual tellers weren’t there. I handed over my deposit slip and some checks to the unfamiliar woman, who said something I didn’t understand. I explained I was hearing-impaired and asked her to repeat it. She proceeded to chide me for doing something, but dadgummit, I had no idea what I supposedly did or didn’t do. She carried on a conversation in heavily-accented English with herself. I tried to explain that I couldn’t understand what she was saying, given the physical distance my car was from the teller’s window. I told her I was too far away to read her lips. I asked her to write down what the problem was. “That’s not an account.” What’s not an account? I told her multiple times that I couldn’t hear her, but she just continued to talk over me. Honey, if I can’t understand what you’re saying to me, you’re not accommodating me.

By this time, I told her that I wanted everything returned to me, so I could go to the main branch of the bank and speak to someone who would accommodate my hearing impairment. She refused to do this. Instead, she told me everything was fine now. Fine? It’s not fine if I don’t know what went on and if I don’t actually know that the problem was correctly resolved. I’m not willing to take her word for it. What if she deposited my checks into someone else’s account? I had asked for a balance on the account, but she was so busy talking at me, she never bothered to write it down. That’s something I need to see in print, in case there is an error. I want to know what the bank does with my money. More importantly, I have a right to know. Honey, if I can’t understand what you’re saying to me, you’re not accommodating me.

And that’s what I want you to know, now that you are someone who has lost your hearing due to aging. You don’t need to apologize for not being able to understand conversation. You don’t need to feel less than human because you struggle to keep up with what is said to you. You don’t need to feel dumb, stupid, lazy, ignorant, or slow. You do, however, have to look out for yourself.

It helps to meet people in the hearing world half-way. Look at people when they speak to you. Maintain eye contact. That shows you are making the effort to communicate effectively. When someone speaks too fast, it’s okay to tell him to slow down. You are probably not going to hear every word of a sentence, but you need to hear as many words as you can in order to properly extrapolate the context.

Remember the old kiddie game we called Telephone Operator? By the time the original whispered message got all the way around the circle, it no longer made any sense. Hearing loss sometimes causes a similar phenomenon when we get it wrong.

Neighbor says:

“Mind if I borrow your weed whacker this afternoon? I’m having the relatives over for dinner tomorrow night at six and I want to get the yard cleaned up.”

You hear:

“Mind…weed whacker…over for dinner…at six…clean up.”

What happens? Your brain takes those few words and tries to configure them in a way that makes sense. Sometimes there is just not enough information. That’s when things get really hairy.

You think you heard:

“Mind using your weed whacker tomorrow? I want to have you over for dinner at six, after you clean it up.”

If you show up on your neighbor’s doorstep at six, even with a bottle of Chardonnay in hand, it’s going to be awkward. Don’t place a lot of faith in your own abilities to fill in the blanks.

My own favorite experience in “mishearing” a conversation still makes me laugh to this day, but that’s because it happened at a gathering where almost all of the people were hearing-impaired. Someone mentioned that he was participating in a charity event for polar animals. The foundation was in the process of raising money to build new shelters to house them. My mind went into overdrive. It’s got to be expensive to care for polar animals. The shelters must have to have refrigeration units, chain link fencing….Are we talking seals, penguins, polar bears? My curiosity finally got the better of me, so I asked: “What kind of polar animals are being rescued?” There was a long pause. “Polar animals?” And then the laughter started. All these deaf people understood what I had thought I heard. “Oh, no! This is a foundation to rescue older animals! Dogs, cats….”

And on that note, I give you my final piece of advice on living with hearing loss. Keep a sense of humor. Sometimes the only thing you can do is laugh it off.