Bethesda Hospital audiologist Rona Ackerman works with Ocean Ridge resident James Weege. Photo provided
By Joyce Reingold
Adults experiencing hearing loss let an average of seven years tick by before going for professional help.
This impairment can affect “nearly every dimension of the human experience,” the Hearing Loss Association of America says, and as the years wear on, hearing-impaired people can become isolated, sink into depression and face the risk of accelerated cognitive decline.
But not Walter Hart. The Realtor from Boynton Beach has worn hearing aids for 20 years, ever since the first sign of trouble.
“When I was younger, I had the ability to sit and talk to you and know what was being said around me,” says Hart, now 80. “It got to a point when I had buyers in my car, in the backseat, I was missing out on their conversations. I said I need a hearing aid.”
Statistically, Hart is the one person in five who needs and uses hearing aids. The other four also need the devices but don’t use them, according to the Hearing Loss Association.
Reasons may include denial, financial constraints, perceived social stigma, or previous bad experience. The hearing aids of yesteryear didn’t exactly recommend themselves to today’s active adults.
“People remember their grandmother’s hearing aids or Poppy’s hearing aids that whistled. They say, ‘I don’t want that,’” says Roy Binder, Hart’s hearing aid specialist.
Binder and his wife, Debra, own The Ear Man, a mobile business that takes them from Boynton Beach to Pembroke Pines to fit customers with hearing aids they fine-tune to each individual’s environment.
The good news is that with 21st-century technology, yesterday’s bulky, noisy hearing aids are just memories and relics. “Now you’re wearing computers in your ear,” says Bethesda Hospital audiologist Rona Ackerman, who has fitted patients with hearing aids for 35 years. “It’s amazing what they can do.”
Today’s devices are unobtrusive, sleek and modern-looking, with names like Styletto from the Signia company and Evoke from Widex. Many models have lithium-ion batteries that can operate for hours on a single charge, and some newer models last for several days. Some come in hues to match hair color.
Bluetooth-compatible devices stream music, phone calls and TV programs straight to the ears. Apps let users control variables like volume and sound balance on their smartphones.
Ackerman promises you need not be a tech whiz to go this route. She tells her patients, “Trust me, you’ll be able to do it.”
Veterinarian Dr. James Weege of Ocean Ridge, one of Ackerman’s patients, first tried hearing aids more than 20 years ago, but didn’t become a believer until digital technology arrived.
“It’s been phenomenal,” he says. “My hearing improved 1,000 percent. I could finally enjoy going to restaurants and having dinner with friends again.”
Via the app on his phone, he can adjust his hearing aids to reduce background noise so he can better enjoy the conversation at his table.
Improved functionality and a discreet size address two principal objections. But what about the cost? Medicare and most insurance plans don’t cover hearing aids, a possible hurdle for folks living on defined incomes.
Ackerman says the devices Bethesda offers cost between $2,400 and $7,000, with technological advances available through the entire range.
“Good, mid-level technology can be programmed to be just as good as the high end,” Binder says. His clients’ hearing aids on average cost between $3,000 and $4,000.
Multiple price points help lower another barrier, which leaves denial — sometimes a tougher nut to crack. But oftentimes it’s just a lack of awareness.
Age-related hearing loss is gradual, Binder says, starting at around age 35. “People don’t know they have any deficiency in their hearing. They deny it because they’re unaware. They make the TV a decibel louder, and as a little time goes by, a little louder.”
If that sounds familiar, the experts say don’t wait.
“Just go get a test,” Ackerman says. “It’s painless.”
The entire screening process, from intake to results, takes just an hour, she says.
“The sooner a person feels that a hearing aid might be needed, the easier it will be for them to adapt to it, and the happier they will be because of the ability to hear better and clearer,” Hart says.
There’s an adjustment period for anyone fitted with hearing aids, and they require important maintenance at regular intervals.
“It’s not like putting on glasses, where you immediately see clearly, and it’s wonderful,” Ackerman says. Her patients typically make a follow-up visit two weeks after the initial fitting. “Usually by 30 days, they’re happy, and they’re keeping them. Some may need longer to learn how to listen with hearing aids.”
Seventy-five percent of Binder’s clients are “the oldest seniors,” he says, who often have transportation issues that prevent them from getting to appointments. In-home service is a particularly good fit for these citizens. “We go to their homes … dig in with them and keep at it until it’s right.”
The journey to improved hearing and a full, healthy engagement in life takes commitment. Satisfied customers like Weege and Hart feel strongly that the relationships with their trusted professionals are the key to their success with hearing aids.
And they leave no doubt it’s worth it.
“Some people say they don’t want to wear them, but I say I wouldn’t be caught without them,” Weege says.
Joyce Reingold writes about health and healthy living. Send column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.