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Getting an Earful

Kathy Wilhelm

I DON’T REMEMBER when my hearing started deteriorating. I suppose it came on gradually. I definitely remember when I developed tinnitus—ringing in the ears—and it was tinnitus that sent me to an audiologist in 2012.

She confirmed the information I’d already found on the internet: There’s no cure for tinnitus. While I would always miss the complete silence I’d previously enjoyed, at least mine was a tolerable background hum, unlike some horror stories I’d read.

After running the usual battery of tests, the audiologist told me something I didn’t know: I have reverse slope hearing loss. This rare condition means that I don’t hear low frequencies well. My high-frequency hearing, which is what often diminishes as you age, was still pretty good.

This made sense. A little research told me that people with this kind of hearing loss—affecting maybe 3,000 total in the U.S. and Canada—are often tone-deaf, and I have always been hopelessly tone-deaf. It also explained why I used to keep cranking up the bass on stereo speakers.

My research turned up some more facts—annoying ones. Medicare will pay for hearing tests and eye exams once every 12 months. But if the tests say you need hearing aids or glasses, it won’t pay a dime toward the cost. My retiree supplemental insurance would pay $200, but that was a fraction of the likely cost.

Audiologists and the hearing-aid manufacturers turned out to have a cozy relationship that allowed them to keep prices high. If I wanted hearing aids, I had to buy them from an audiologist. I decided to wait a year and get them from a university medical center.

I wound up buying mid-range Phonaks for $4,000, but they were never very satisfactory. If the audiologist programmed them to where I could hear speech well, my voice echoed. Still, they were better than nothing. While I didn’t wear them at home, and instead just turned the TV’s closed captions on and my speakers up, they did help somewhat when I was around other people. Getting my ears periodically de-waxed also helped.

I was thrilled when the law changed in 2017, allowing people to buy hearing aids over-the-counter starting in 2022. Although I really needed new ones, I waited. When COVID-19 hit, I stopped seeing people in person, so it wasn’t until 2022 that I realized I couldn’t wait any longer. Even with my hearing aids, I could only understand people in real life if they were sitting right next to me.

Sadly, I soon realized that over-the-counter hearing aids, which were less innovative than I’d expected, weren’t going to work for me. They’re intended for people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss and, I believe, work only for those with normal high-frequency loss.

My hearing loss as of 2013 was already moderate to moderately severe in the lower ranges. It wasn’t clear that I would be able to program OTC aids to compensate. I was also surprised that a lot of these new hearing aids weren’t all that cheap—compared to Costco’s, that is.

I had been getting my prescriptions filled at Costco for years, but you don’t have to get a Costco membership to use the pharmacy. Living alone, membership never seemed worthwhile. But in early 2023, I accompanied a friend to sign up. He got a bonus for introducing me.

When I saw the audiologist, she told me that newer research had shown that higher frequencies were required to understand speech clearly, and she could fit me with aids that would be a revelation. I’m happy to report that she was right.

I’d worn my existing hearing aids into the store. On my way to her sound-proof office, it seemed fairly quiet. When I wore a test pair back into the store, I was astonished by the cascade of sound that surrounded me. Voices seemed clearer, too. Costco appears to specialize in in-ear aids. I had found my behind-the-ear Phonaks a bit claustrophobic but I thought in-ear aids would be even worse, so I wound up buying behind-the-ear Philips for $1,600.

It took the audiologist a long time to program the hearing aids to where I could hear other people clearly and my speech didn’t sound like I was at the bottom of a cave. It turned out that the sound level had been set too high, but when I went back for my first checkup, it was clear it would take time to reprogram them to the right overall volume.

Instead, I’ve taken to turning the volume down two notches for normal wear and raise it back up for meetings. I use the “sound in noise” setting for restaurants, which helps eliminate background noise, but also turn the volume down four notches. I make those changes using an app on my phone.

The hearing aids have Bluetooth, and I love it. In-coming calls and text notifications come through my hearing aids, as do radio programs and podcasts from my iPad or phone. If my TV was just a little younger, I’d also be able to connect using Bluetooth. For now, I’m still using closed captions on TV, but I have the sound level set in the 50s or 60s, instead of the 80s, which is where it used to be. Even with aids, my hearing isn’t great. Some noises, like barking dogs and falling water, sound odd. I still struggle a bit in meetings and restaurants, but it’s a whole lot better than it was.

If you notice that your friends and family seem to be speaking too softly, do seek help. Various studies link hearing loss to social isolation, and social isolation to earlier death. I’d recommend starting by getting your ears de-waxed. But if that doesn’t help, see an audiologist. You can probably self-diagnose on the web, but the audiologist will be more thorough, may notice things you don’t, and the consultation is likely free.

Kathy Wilhelm, who comments on HumbleDollar as mytimetotravel, is a former software engineer. She took early retirement so she could travel extensively. Some of Kathy’s trips are chronicled on her blog. Born and educated in England, she has lived in North Carolina since 1975. Check out Kathy’s previous articles.

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