I’ve been working in the hearing aid industry for a couple years now, but it wasn’t until recently that I had a conversation with my parents about hearing loss, and how it is truly affecting their life.
My siblings and I have joked about my dad’s poor hearing for years. I don’t remember if there was ever a point where it started, but rather – as it often is – it got gradually worse over time.
My dad loves music and has a record collection in the hundreds. Growing up, our home would radiate with melodies and beats, as vinyls, CDs and cassette tapes boomed through the speakers. These moments where we sang and danced in the living room have left me with some of my most fondest memories, and a resonating passion for ’70s folk and early ’90s grunge.
As we got older, there were many incidents that warned us that my dad couldn’t quite understand what was said. Like when we would introduce him to a new friend, named “Nancy,” and he would repeatedly call her “Karen,” or when he would make up lyrics to songs he hadn’t heard before.
We learned to never expect a response from him if we tried talking to him from the backseat of the car while he was driving.
Eventually, we grew accustomed to his ridiculous responses, which often made us ignite in gleeful laughter. To be honest, my dad’s regular misunderstandings fit him quite well. It became part of his personality.
“…my dad’s regular misunderstandings fit him quite well. It became part of his personality.”
As many people could say of their own, I claim my dad as one of the kindest, most selfless, and hardest working people I know. Since the day my twin sister and I were born he worked nights, weekends and holiday shifts at a paper factory in Indiana. We knew the warehouse as a place we could get free, glittery, sticky paper. For him, it was a place he could check into day after day, funding his simple life with three kids.
The routine of pressure, stress and labor would leave him exhausted at the end of each day, and the job evolving around heavy machinery would eventually play a huge impact in his health. In one instant, he lost part of his thumb in a machine accident. But it wasn’t until recently that we realized the slow damage his career has done on his hearing.
Of course, my dad is not alone, and many blue collar workers are exposed to loud noise on a daily basis.
“Studies show a strong association between occupational noise and noise induced hearing loss, an effect that increased with the duration and magnitude of the noise exposure,” according to The World Health Organization.
For example, the risk of hearing loss among “blue-collar” workers in construction jobs is 2-to 3.5 times greater than “white-collar” workers in other industries, according to the WHO.
Last year I had the privilege to travel with Hear the World Foundation to the Appalachian region of Kentucky, as a staff volunteer for Sonova. The rural town reminded me of the people back home and the communities that sprouted up around once-booming labor industries. In Appalachia’s case, it was the mining industry that ran the economy in the hallows, as employees were provided a comfortable salary to spend their days underground, in loud, dark and dangerous spaces.
Read more: Hear Appalachia: Reviving a Quiet Community
My colleagues and I were there to fit former miners with hearing aids. When I had the opportunity to talk to some of them, they told me that protecting their hearing was more of a matter between life and death. Wearing hearing protection meant that they wouldn’t be able to hear warning signs at work… like the ceiling caving in on them.
“Wearing hearing protection meant that they wouldn’t be able to hear warning signs at work… like the ceiling caving in on them.”
While I was on the volunteer trip I also had the opportunity to meet an audiologist named Bob DeNyse, who happened to have an office near my where my dad lives. We talked throughout the trip about his years as an audiologist, his work, his life and passions. I told him that when my dad was ready, I would love for him to take a look at his ears.
That day came a few weeks ago, as my dad, who is preparing for retirement, said he would like to get a proper hearing test so he could purchase hearing aids – if necessary – while he was still covered with his work insurance. He had hearing tests before at his work, but it would consist of someone coming to his office to do a quick check, followed by him walking away with an audiogram – which was as indecipherable to him as a Spanish Novela.
Read more: Understanding Your Audiogram
I suggested he make an appointment with Bob to get a proper hearing test, then I could help advise him on what hearing technology he would like best.
What happened after my dad’s visit with Bob is what made me really understand the importance of having an audiologist in one’s hearing loss diagnosis, and hope for success in returning to a full life of hearing.
“As you suspected, (your dad) has a bilateral hearing loss, essentially symmetrical, predominately in the high frequencies, consistent with his history of working around loud machinery,” said Bob, in a long email sent to me a few days after the appointment.
“Subsequently, his perception of high frequency speech sounds is compromised. And if you add the variable of him conversing with someone with a high frequency voice, such as yourself and probably your sister, he is going to miss a few sounds. (Ex. “Hey Dad …. are you thirsty?,” to which he may respond, “No, I think it is Wednesday…”) After reviewing the audiogram and discussing the recommendation, he is ready to use hearing aids….but, he says he may not use them until he “retires’ from his job. He could use them now, but that is between him and you all.”
“Ex. ‘Hey Dad … are you thirsty?,’ to which he may respond, ‘No, I think it’s Wednesday…'”
And all of the sudden, I got it.
My dad’s hearing loss really is affecting his life.
I shared the email with my mother and siblings before talking to my dad. We discussed the options and the severity, then I finally gave my dad a call.
When I told my dad that his audiologist suggested he get hearing aids, he wasn’t thrilled, but he seemed open to the idea.
“I’ll never get my hearing back though, will I?” he asked. “They always told me my ear hairs were dead so my hearing won’t come back.”
“Well, hearing aids should allow you to hear most of the sounds that you haven’t been able to hear,” I said.
“Like the birds?!”
“You can’t hear the birds, dad!?” I asked, shocked I hadn’t known this fact.
“Well, maybe some of them if they’re really loud. What about music? Will I be able to hear music again!? I would love to be able to hear music like I used to!”
And that was it. I decided my dad has to get hearing aids.
“Will I be able to hear music again!? I would love to be able to hear music like I used to!”
My family, audiologist and I haven’t yet decided on what model hearing aids to get my dad, but we are thinking about Phonak’s rechargable hearing aids, especially because he has a hard time handling small things, like batteries, because of his thumb injury.
Honestly, the price is still looming over our heads, but now that I know how much hearing again could help my dad have a more enjoyable life, price doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
All that really matters is that he’s he able to enjoy life’s wonderful sounds as he used to.