Gerry Litton wishes he had acted sooner to have his hearing checked out.
Gerry Litton and his wife, Carol, live in Oakland with six cats—and one other fuzzy addition that has crept into Litton’s life over the years: hearing loss.
Litton, 75, believes he suffered from some level of hearing loss since he was born. But it didn’t register until he met his wife, 30 years ago.
“My hearing loss wasn’t substantial enough to inhibit my activity, but Carol has acute hearing,” he says. This imbalance made watching television together impossible. “She likes it toned down, and I’d walk up and crank it way up.”
Still, Litton says another 10 or 15 years went by before he consulted an audiologist and had his hearing loss confirmed. “I was amazed I didn’t know it for the past 40 years,” he recalls. “There were so many clues I didn’t pick up on. Like when I was a kid, I was the only one who didn’t know the lyrics of songs. And I’ve always felt left out in groups. The reason is I can’t understand what people are saying. And I always played piano pretty loudly. When it said fortissimo, I let out all the stops.”
Litton plays the piano, but unlike his wife, who plays violin professionally, he plays at an amateur level, and his disability didn’t jeopardize his work as a computer programmer and teacher. “Though I had trouble hearing students,” he admits.
But hearing loss forced him to give up tuning the piano.
The Washington, D.C.–based Better Hearing Institute reports that almost 40 million Americans have hearing loss, thanks to excessive noise, aging, infections, injuries to the head or ear, birth defects or genetics, and drugs or cancer treatments that are ototoxic, which means they damage hearing.
But many go without help, because they lack insurance, don’t realize they have a problem, or fear hearing aids make people look old.
Bruce Harris, president emeritus of the East Bay chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America, notes that the Affordable Care Act leaves hearing aid coverage to individual states. And the association’s website reveals that most states, including California, don’t cover adult costs. A top-end pair of hearing aids can cost as much as $5,000 before insurance.
Harris notes that many organizations offer aid to low income people.
“And hearing aid distribution is changing rapidly now,” he adds. “Insurance companies and big box stores are getting into it now, including Costco, which sells aids at about half the normal price, including high-end devices.”
Today, Litton wears a pair of tiny high-end devices behind his ears. His one regret? “I started wearing them 40 years too late.”
Litton’s audiologist, Susanna Storm, Au.D., warns that, left untreated, hearing loss can lead to isolation, depression, and the appearance of dementia. She notes that departments of motor vehicles’ offices and most general practitioners don’t regularly test people’s hearing, unlike vision. “And this sucks because hearing loss tends to come on slowly, and those afflicted tend to learn to compensate,” Storm says. “So people often have pronounced hearing loss before they seek help, if they seek help at all.”
Instead, many with hearing loss rely on family, friends, or colleagues to be their ears—an approach that can be irritating.
Storm notes that all the research shows that you use hearing or lose it. “If the temporal lobe, which controls hearing in the brain, is not stimulated, then processing of sound in the brain goes down, making hearing worse,” she explains. “So, we need to amplify sooner.”
Litton cautions that hearing aids won’t fully restore hearing. “If you turn them up too much, things sounds like static or distorted.” He admits that his disability still causes strain with his wife. “She forgets to talk up, I forget to put in my hearing aids,” he laughs. And he acknowledges one upside to not being unable to hear. “There’s so much noise going on these days!”
Still, he mostly wears his hearing aids so he can participate more fully in life and regain what he didn’t realize he’d lost. “All of a sudden, I can hear the birds, the wind, water running, cars passing by. It’s like night and day.”
Tips for Clear Communication
Five tips for how you can cope with hearing loss.
People have assorted reactions to being diagnosed with hearing loss: shock, denial, fear. But help is available. At a recent Hear Me Oakland workshop, audiologists Susanna Storm and Elise Gregoire of the Whisper Hearing Center offered the following five tips.
1. Control your environment. Be assertive. Demand a front seat. Ask for specialized equipment at work.
2. Look at the person who is talking. This may requires asking speakers to look in your direction as they talk.
3. Expectations must be realistic. No equipment can fully restore your hearing.
4. Assisted hearing devices help. Get good headphones. Find places that are looped (a sound system that talks directly to hearing aids). Ask an audiologist to sign an application for Caption Call, a federally funded program that provides free easy-to-read screens that display captions of what callers are saying on the phone. Ditto for the California Telephone Access Program, which provides free amplified phones with a letter from an audiologist. Explore Blue Tooth integration.
5. Rephrasing is key. Ask speakers to rephrase, not repeat, the part of the sentence that you do not understand.