Hearing Aids: The How-Tos [Part One]
Because I have hearing aids, I have lots of conversations with aged people about them. They feel older than me, but I’m the experienced one in this area: I’ve had at least five sets of hearing aids in my lifetime, and I expect to have many more. For my elders, I’ve discovered that hearing aids can be a sensitive topic. To some wonderfully aged, hearing the words “Mom, I think you need hearing aids” or “Dad, you don’t hear as well as you used to” might be as shocking and invasive as “I highly suggest a colonoscopy” or “we’ve been robbed.”
Thus, this is the second in my Sensitive Subject Series. One of the tactics you might use to convince them that they need hearing aids is to talk them through the steps to getting them. I’ll address how to have your hearing tested and how to get to the “Buy a Hearing Aid” step. After buying a hearing aid is covered in a future post.
So, once you convince your parents that one of them needs a hearing aid or two, then what? Your parents are supposed to be the experienced ones, but they’ve never done this, and neither have you. As someone who just bought her first pair of hearing aids (at 26) and has had her parents buy her all her sets of hearing aids before these, I’ll work you through it. (I’ll be writing this as if you are working your elderly parents through this, but the same steps apply if you’re doing it for yourself or if you’re buying a young child hearing aids.)
The first step is to get their hearing checked. Yes, it’s obviously impaired because they can’t hear the conversation around them, but hearing is a complex thing. Having a hearing test determines which areas of hearing need to be repaired, like high pitches that are loud or lower tones that are soft. It also determines how exactly those ears are hearing impaired: it could be the tiny hairs in the cochlea that are damaged, it could be the fluid itself in the cochlea, or it could be damage to the auditory nerve that goes to the brain.
The hearing test involves several sections, just like the ACT has English, Math, and History sections. They’re done in different orders because it doesn’t matter which order you take each section of the test. One section involves stepping into a sound-proof booth with a sound-proof door, sitting on a chair in the middle of the room, and putting different sets of earwear on like headphones and earplugs. Your parent will face the audiologist at a window in the booth, during which they’ll hear pitches, words, tones, and sentences and they’ll have to raise their hand or push a button when they hear anything, among other things. It’s a standardized test, but it’s actually changed a little bit since I was a kid.
Your dad will also sit in front of an ordinary table and have earplugs stuck into his ears that are attached to a machine that’s got lots of dials and graphs on it. Depending on how old the version of this particular machine is, it will do a series of things, but he’ll feel a series of pressures in his ears coming from the earplugs. It’s weird, but it has a purpose that the audiologist will explain.
At the end, the audiologist should explain the results of the test. He’s got his own set of records, but you’ll see your dad’s hearing impairment on a graph. It’s really kind of cool.
There are different places to get hearing tests. You can go to a hospital where there’s a Ear, Nose, Throat (ENT) section and an audiologist who works there. You can also find a Hearing Clinic or Center in town that operates as its own business but has audiologists who work for that clinic.
In my experience, I prefer the hospital, but it was just a personality thing I had with the gruff audiologist who conducted my last hearing test. [These guys also recommend not having your hearing tested at the clinic, but for different reasons.] Wherever you go, you’ll need to schedule an appointment and provide insurance info, just like a regular doctor appointment.
The hearing test is mentally grueling, so if your mom is freshest in the morning, try to stick to that time period when scheduling appointments for hearing stuff. Don’t plan the test the same day you have a party or a zoo outing. Your mom might be exhausted and overwhelmed by the new experience.
You’ll eventually need to step into a clinic to buy the hearing aids themselves. If you have several to choose from, pick one like you would pick a doctor–somewhere close, someone you trust and someone whom you and your parent click with personality-wise. Like a doctor’s clinic, there can be several audiologists working in one place.
I find I don’t like doctor’s clinics that won’t let you switch doctors if you don’t like the first one you meet; the hearing clinic shouldn’t be any different. Do you connect better with men as doctors than with women as doctors? I’ve found I like both–I worked solely with women audiologists through the school system and through my childhood, but the guy I worked with in this clinic, who was the gruff guy’s son, was great as well.
Whichever clinic you choose, you’ll want to make appointments with them as well. You’ll evaluate what you need the hearing aid for–does your mom play World of Warcraft with her grandsons, like an awesome short, White-hair my husband met while selling computers? Does she go to hair salons and restaurants with her friends, or does she watch lots of TV with her husband on their flat-screen?
Each of these lifestyle activities helps determine what kind of hearing aid is best for her–certain hearing aids can adjust for people-filled rooms and then for sound coming from a TV and also for a music-filled concert hall. But you don’t want to buy your mom a evening gown with sequins and ruffles and buttons all the way up the back when she hasn’t gone to a dance in forty years and can’t dance anymore anyway. You don’t want to buy your dad a mega-speakers, total-performance, teeny-tiny laptop when all he’d only use it to make Excel and Word documents. Same thing with hearing aids.
Based on lifestyle, you should have two or three hearing aids to choose from. If you’re talking to a audiologist who sounds like he’s selling you a car, it’s because he gets a piece of your purchase. These guys are doctors, but they’re also running a business. Feel free to ask for another audiologist or, if you can, try another clinic. You’ll buy them straight from the audiologist, but you choose who you buy it from.
See if insurances can cover some of the cost of the hearing aids. When my parents bought hearing aids, their insurance never covered any of the cost. When I bought my latest pair, insurance covered a surprising amount. It was nice to know what my insurance would cover before I went in to talk about dollar amounts.
I have to note: I’ve seen hearing aids advertised on TV and in magazines. But I can’t imagine those things fit very well in the ear; as a long-time wearer of earmolds, I know that every ear is shaped a little differently. There’s no possible way that one hearing aid can help all hearing problems, either. For instance, the hearing aids I’ve seen that are mail order are In-The Ears, meaning the entire thing fits in the ear. Well, that thing isn’t strong enough to fix my hearing problem; I’ve always worn over-the-ear hearing aids.
So you order a set of hearing aids from the audiologist, whatever shape they may be. Then, you wait for them to arrive from the manufacturer, whichever company it may be. Well, the ride isn’t done. Part two of this post is about what comes next.
If you can’t wait for Part Two, here are some other well-written how-tos that help in this particular department: From AARP & The NY Times. Also, wondering why the top of the post has dancing bells? Tinnitus is a common problem among those of us with hearing loss.