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Updating my 7-Year-Old Hearing Aids

Last August, I found myself in the hectic final weeks before launching the biggest dream of my life – selling everything to travel the world for five years. It was a tidal wave of preparations, and the to-do lists were forever-long. A friend piled one more thing on me when she reminded me of a critical item for exploring the world, something I had neglected to really plan for: My 7-year-old hearing aids!

Commence freak-out! How’d I forget something so critical?

Weirdly, it was because my hearing aids had been insanely reliable, never needing repairs as long as I had owned them – approximately seven years. After a lifetime of repairing hearing aids every 18-24 months, my Phonak hearing aids didn’t inconvenience me that way. (And boy, are repairs an inconvenience.)

Part of that reliability was because I had been fastidious about maintenance and changing out windscreens, never letting wax build up in either the molds or on the aids, and all that, but you can change car oil religiously and sooner or later that engine’ll need repairs, right?

Well, here I was, launching my audacious travel-for-five-years plan and now I had to get new receivers and microphones for my hearing aids. I called my then-audiologist and was horrified to learn my hearing aids were already more than 6 years old and the window for repairing them had closed in year five. I was stuck with my hearing aids the way they were.

Resume freak-out! Gah! I did the only thing I could, then: I insured them under my business electronics travel policy. At least now if they died I might be able to get coverage for them, because lord knows my hearing future was sketchy if my hearing aids were already obsolete and irreparable!

The "Avenue of the Allieds" in Porto. This was the ominous first night of what would be three consecutive weeks of rain. Awesome for seven-year-old hearing aids!

The “Avenue of the Allieds” in Porto. This was the ominous first night of what would be three consecutive weeks of rain. Awesome for seven-year-old hearing aids!

And then it happened

I don’t have a crystal ball, but it turns out my apprehensions were well-founded. I just got new hearing aids two weeks ago and the week before I replaced my old ones, the right one stopped turning on reliably. I think the leads in the battery door were beginning to corrode. Beyond that, maintenance acts such as replacing windscreens were no longer getting me the clarity I needed.

That’s the big problem. The sound had gotten muddy. I had lost sound richness and definition, and I found myself becoming that hearing-impaired person I never want to be – the one who nods and smiles and pretends they’re hearing the conversation because they’re getting too tired of saying “speak up” to bother anymore.

I would pretend I heard what was said. I found myself getting frustrated at how much I was missing. What I did hear wasn’t very clear, and what I didn’t hear was getting too abundant for comfort.

During my first leg of my travels, from October 2015 to April 2016, I ran into all kinds of problems. In Portugal, my tubes on my ear molds had filled with moisture due to the tropical-type humidity I experienced while staying in an incredible beach house an hour outside of Lisbon. My life was good; hearing was not. That fluid blocked all sound. I tried my little hearing aid kit brushes, but the fluid blockage was around the bend and unreachable. I tried “sucking it out” with pursed lips, which was less disgusting than it sounds, but that only helped for a day or two. Then I lost ALL sound and freaked out. I couldn’t find a Phonak provider in Lisbon, not because one doesn’t exist, but because the logistics of searching for one were just too frustrating with my lack of Portuguese.

It was living by this beach in Portugal for two weeks where I noticed a decline in my hearing aids. Nice place, but the humidity-glitching hearing aids harshed my vibe, obviously.

It was living by this beach in Portugal for two weeks where I noticed a decline in my hearing aids. Nice place, but the humidity-glitching hearing aids harshed my vibe, obviously.

In my moments of despair, I turned into MacGyver and came up with a brilliant solution. The next day I sought waxed dental floss. I bought the simple skinny waxed floss of my childhood in the ‘80s, and pulled a length of it out. I folded it over four times and twisted it into a ridged, rigid waxed string. Inserting it carefully and spinning it, I managed to extract about 80% of the fluid, if not more. It was so effective I never again had to do it in my final four months with those aids. I had sound again! I was so relieved it made me emotional.

More recently, in Mexico, I sweated so amply and frequently in the hot season that I had to change my windscreens nearly weekly. “Windscreens” are little cloth covers for microphones, a mesh screen that can collect dust and other debris. Once you add moisture, like sweat or excess humidity from tropical rains, that dust and debris can muddy over and suddenly you’ve got blocked screens that inhibit sound or dampen clarity.

By the time I got back to Vancouver, Canada, in anticipation of being fit for my new Phonak Naída hearing aids, I’d run out of screens and my sound was just mud. Plus, as I mentioned, leads were getting corroded in the rainy season’s humidity, and now it wasn’t turning on consistently without a little finagling.

But that’s after seven years of hard-core, 13-to 18-hours a-day of wear for those hearing aids. Heck, I even threw 50,000 kilometers of new environments and climates and languages at ‘em during their final eight months.

It has rained, a lot, in every country I visited, even in Madrid, which is not famous for its rain. I quite enjoyed the Spanish. This gentleman stepped up to cover this busker with his own umbrella, unasked, when rain began to fall.

It has rained, a lot, in every country I visited, even in Madrid, which is not famous for its rain. I quite enjoyed the Spanish. This gentleman stepped up to cover this busker with his own umbrella, unasked, when rain began to fall.

The beginning of the end

In a perfect world, we’d all have new hearing aids every four years. (That’s what’s recommended as technology advances.) It’s often not possible, and that’s why, even when you’re on the lucky side like me, it’s important to do in-depth maintenance by way of replacing receivers and microphones by year four if you can’t afford new ones in the coming year.

Technology changes so fast now that it’s crazy how different generational leaps are for hearing aids, so four years represents massive growth in the intuitiveness and sensitivity of hearing aids, but when you’re talking seven years, whew, boy, now that’s some kinda change! (Compare an iPhone 3G to iPhone 6, and that’s what’s happened for hearing aids too. A whole lot of advancing!)

Another good reason for four-to-five years for replacement is that hearing has a natural tendency to decline, no matter who you are. Because I’d gone so many years, I learned that my left ear had a substantial, but within norms, decline since my last hearing aids were issued.

Between the old technology I had and that decline, my hearing aid settings were long rendered moot. It’s no wonder I had found myself feeling excluded in every conversation lately. 

 

This outsider seagull is kind of how I felt a lot toward the end of my last hearing aids. Outside, looking on while others enjoyed their lives. This is somewhere outside Lisbon, Portugal.

This outsider seagull is kind of how I felt a lot toward the end of my last hearing aids. Outside, looking on while others enjoyed their lives. This is somewhere outside Lisbon, Portugal.

My inability to hear conversations and be fully involved left me very frustrated and even depressed. The fact is, my travel life is something a lot of people dream about, but it’s isolating, and the chances I get to connect with others are critically important to me. For months, those connections were compromised by obsolete hearing aids worn well beyond their shelf-life. It taught me that, just because something’s “working” doesn’t mean it’s working.

Life is too short to miss out on important conversations with people we love, or random connections with fascinating strangers, let alone business conversations that could result in lost opportunities.

These days, I’m nearly three weeks into adapting to my new Naída hearing aids and my encounters and life are richer for them. I’ll tell you more about that next time!

Steffani Cameron
Steffani Cameron
Steffani Cameron is a writer and photographer from Vancouver, Canada, who's gone "Full Nomad" and sold everything she owned to travel the world for five years. She's working as a digital nomad wherever there's a reasonably decent internet connection. She's worn hearing aids since she was two, and currently wears Phonak Naída V90-SPs.