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Hearing Aids and Banana Skins


‘You're mumbling!’


That’s what I growled at Helen sometimes before I realised, or perhaps was ready to acknowledge, that I was suffering some level of hearing loss. We had conversations which went something like this:


Helen: what would you like for lunch?

Mike: about half-past one.


That was some ten years ago and my hearing continues to deteriorate. It’s a problem I had not anticipated earlier in my life. I have two hearing aids and a couple of Bluetooth devices which help but still communication sometimes falters. Sometimes amusing but more often frustrating. For both of us. And probably for others too polite to say.


When I share my problem, some people assume that it is a matter of volume and so they try to speak more loudly. But with me it’s not that. It’s about sound frequencies. Some voices I hear better than others. I lose the beginnings and endings of words. My brain has to work fast to try to put some meaning into the sounds. Sort of like hearing under water. That is tiring after a while.


An audiologist once told me that the brain is the main organ of hearing. I definitely hear better when I am not tired. Hearing devices are wonderful when they work properly… which is not always. And so I have had to develop a relationship with my hearing aids. It involves regular adjustments in order to get the best out of them.


That is me. It is no less frustrating and irritating for Helen. She cannot make the casual asides which we once used to delight in. The sotto voce joke is lost. Not unusually, she realizes that a message that she had sent has not been received. She has to repeat herself. And maybe again. All that can be stressful. It is difficult to live with and sometimes worrying too.


The worst effect for me, however, is a sense of isolation. Sometimes I feel uncomprehending and frankly stupid. I feel isolated by not being able to keep up with conversations. In the end a natural response is to avoid them altogether. That can isolate Helen and others too. Conversations can become more laboured. As a family, we are all still learning to live with it. I know others have far worse health issues to cope with and often it works to tell yourself that story. But not always.


The experience has made me think about other kinds of ‘hearing loss’ and how we all handle them. Different kinds of hearing loss are suffered by people whose ears and brains work perfectly well together. We all scramble messages. Hearing but not listening or comprehending. Knowing in turn that you’re not being heard or that people may have heard the words but not the meaning of the words. We’re all sometimes isolated from other voices, from others operating on different frequencies. And it’s not only those with hearing loss who yield to the temptation to talk a lot so that they have to listen less.


For many years, Helen had on her office wall a quotation from George Bernard Shaw, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Since I’ve had hearing loss she knows that better than ever! But the willingness to check that the receiver has received our message is not only a necessary discipline for spouses. Writers and preachers, parents and children all need to remember that just because we’ve spoken, does not always mean we’ve been heard! And because we've been heard, does not always mean we've been understood.


Where hearing loss and hearing aids are concerned communication is littered with banana skins!

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