Dr. Ross on Hearing Loss
Helpful Hints to the New Hearing Aid User
by Mark Ross, Ph.D.
If you are an adult and have just received your first hearing aid, the chances are that its need has been apparent to most everyone, except perhaps yourself, for years. The average adult receives his or her first hearing aid some five to seven years after the problems caused by a hearing loss are first noticeable. Up to that point, because the usual onset of an adult hearing loss is so gradual, you may not have been aware of having hearing problems, or else blamed your conversational partners for any difficulty you were having ("If people would only get the mud out of their mouths and stop mumbling, maybe I wouldn't have so much trouble hearing them"). You have finally come to the realization--perhaps through a nagging spouse or children, an irritated boss or co-worker, or, hopefully, on your own--that the problem resides not in other people's mouths but in your ears.
Now you've done something about it. You've succumbed to all the internal and external pressure and agreed to try a hearing aid. It is important to say at the outset of this paper that you have not thereby solved all your hearing problems. Do not expect to suddenly hear normally and experience no difficulty in understanding speech. Do expect a reduction in the degree of hearing difficulty that you have been having, more so in some situations that in others.
Most hearing aids are not very "smart" in that they do not do a very good job of discriminating between desirable and undesirable sounds, between, in other words, the sounds you want to hear (speech) and those you want to ignore (background noise). For normal-hearing individuals in all but the most difficult of acoustical situations, this is a task made easy and effortlessly by their two good ears. While this situation is slowly changing with the development of more sophisticated electronics (and as hearing aid engineers get "smarter"!), no hearing aid yet developed can completely compensate for a hearing loss. However, and it is important to emphasize this point, the overwhelming majority of hearing-impaired adults can function better and are much better off with a hearing aid than without one. Because an aid cannot eliminate all f your hearing problems is no reason to reject the assistance that it can offer.
The amount of help you can get with a hearing aid depends on many factors. These include the kind of hearing loss you have, how well the hearing aids have been adjusted to your particular hearing loss, the kinds of communication situations you find yourself in, and your willingness to work through, in cooperation with your audiologist, any problems that may come up. I will have more to say about these factors later on.
Up to this point, I have referred to a hearing aid in the singular and not the plural. Most hearing-impaired people would be better off with two hearing aids, one for each ear, than just one. If a binaural fitting has been recommended to you, this does not mean that your hearing loss is twice as bad as if only one hearing aid (a monaural fitting) was recommended. What it does mean is you have the kind of hearing loss in which it would be advantageous to stimulate both ears with sound. Most older people who need a hearing aid also need eyeglasses: when was the last time somebody recommended a monocle for you to wear? It does not make much sense to respond to a binaural recommendation by saying "I can get along all right with just one aid." You can probably get along with just one eye too, but why bother when you can see out of both? It's the same with two hearing aids: if you can hear better with two, why limit yourself to just one? It is true that there are times, for audiological, physical, or financial reasons, when just one hearing aid is going to be used. Whether you wear one or two hearing aids, however, the assistance you receive is going to depend in large part upon your understanding of what a hearing aid can and what it cannot do for you. If you expect too much, you're going to be disappointed. If you expect too little, you may be limiting yourself unnecessarily. The comments I've outlined below are designed to assist you to get the most possible benefit out of your hearing aid.
First, and most important, do not get discouraged. It may take some time to realize the potential benefit of a hearing aid. Remember, you have heard abnormally for a number of years; but for you, what you have been hearing is "normal." Now you are suddenly being exposed not only to louder sounds, but to a different pattern of sounds. Your ears (and your brain) are going to have to be re-educated to accept these different sound patterns as "normal." What you are now perceiving with a hearing aid can be likened to a slightly different dialect of your native language. Just as it takes some time to get used to someone's speech who comes from a different section of the country, it will take some time for you to adjust to the amplified speech "dialect" coming through the hearing aid.
The preparation of this paper was supported in part by Grant #H133E30015 from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the Office of Education to the Lexington Center.