To hear, or not to hear, that is the question

Something that is so small can make such a massive difference to those suffering from hearing loss.

Something that is so small can make such a massive difference to those suffering from hearing loss.

One of the defining circumstances of my childhood was having a deaf mother.

She may have been born deaf, or it may have been early childhood illness which robbed her of the hearing in one ear, and severely diminished the hearing in the other.

Whatever the cause, there was no disguising the fact: she wore a hearing aid the size of a cigarette packet clipped to the front of her dress like an ugly badge; a wire snaked from the aid to an ear-piece the colour of bubble-gum jammed into her "good" ear; intermittently the thing would emit high-pitched shrieks, audible to everyone except its wearer.

Her hearing aid amplified voices, but made every other noise louder as well. When she could tolerate it no longer, my mother would tear off the hearing aid, preferring isolation and silence to the cacophony.

My mother often misheard, misunderstood or didn't hear at all what people said and so her responses made no sense. Shopkeepers and bus drivers talked at her in loud voices as if she were an idiot.

As a child, I felt ashamed of her disability and alternated between a fierce urge to protect her in public, and a private fury at having to endlessly repeat what I said to her, so that I often ended up just shouting at her too.

Because of her deafness, my mother was taken away from school at 13, although she was intelligent, and ironically enough, loved language.

As a child, under the pen names "Sunshine Elf" and "Amarylis" she regularly contributed drawings, poetry and stories to the children's page of the Evening Post. She read widely and compiled lists of new words as she discovered them. She prided herself on knowing the Latinate names of plans. She taught herself to lip-read.

How different her life would have been if she'd had the advantage of the hearing aids I began wearing this week.

These aids aren't anything like the ugly, shrieking thing she had to endure. They are tiny sophisticated devices, tuned to specific hearing loss, and worn almost invisibly behind the ear. The current problem with hearing aids is not function or cosmetics therefore, but cost. Even with the government subsidy of $511 per aid, the hearing aids from an audiology clinic which I trialled a few months ago (and reported delightedly on in this column) cost $2500 each.

I wondered how, failing a Lotto windfall, I would be able to afford them.

The solution occurred to me when I read an article about how New Yorkers, desperate to find accommodation will resort to consulting the death notices in the newspaper, then hotfoot it to the address of the dearly-departed to get first dibs on the apartment before anyone else gets a look-in.

I didn't consider, for even one ghoulish moment,  door-stepping the recently bereaved in search of no-longer-required hearing aids. However, it did make me wonder if there was a market in pre-loved aids. It turns out that there is.

They don't advertise the fact, but some audiology clinics do trade in second-hand appliances - although they will also charge you up to $600 to tune them. You can buy second-hand hearing aids on TradeMe too. People sell their old aids when they upgrade or decide that they don't have the temperament for them. And of course there are the hearing aids which have been cast-off at the Pearly Gates.

The problem for the uninformed buyer is finding the right hearing aids. Clearly the "brand new hearing aid" priced at $56 is not worth investing in, but beyond that, how is the non-professional to know which aids are of recent vintage, will suit your hearing loss and are in good repair?

I spent some time researching hearing aids and lurked on TradeMe for a week or two before identifying a TradeMe seller who clearly had expertise in audiology. He also offered free tuning for the life of any hearing aid he sold (based on your audiogram), a 6-month guarantee and had hundreds of references from happy buyers.

That is why, having taken a calculated risk, I am now happily wearing recent-model, ex-demo hearing aids which cost only $850 each. They have six programmes which have been tuned specifically for the different hearing loss in each ear and switch automatically between the programmes depending upon the sound environment I'm in.

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Using the Bluetooth streamer which was included in the package I am able to pair my hearing aids with my mobile phone (or any other Bluetooth compatible device) and stream sound directly to my ears.

I've worn my new technology while out walking the dog and was able to listen effortlessly to a podcast streamed from my phone into the hearing aids (look Mum no wires!) even on a windy afternoon. I've worn them at the supermarket and discovered I could hear what shoppers in the next aisle were saying. I've worn them at a pub concert, seated only a few metres away from the loudspeakers and I still take part in the conversation around me.

I'm pretty sure that with a little more practice I'll soon be able to hear people think.


 - Stuff

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