Joan Didion photo: Irving Penn

I wear hearing aids. I have noise damage in both ears, says Elaine Kingett. The result of standing too close to the speakers at too many gigs with my blues-playing late husband, following Roxy Music around, a particularly loud night at Bains Douche in Paris in the 70s and the fact that I’m 67.  Double hearing aids may entitle me to a Disabled Railcard [for me and my ‘carer’] but they also embarrass new friends and work colleagues. Even in this day and age, they are synonymous with lack of mental ability – being a bit ‘slow’, as my mother would have called it. Pardon?

As we age, we gather failings – some more socially acceptable than others. Glasses are a branding opportunity, a global source of income for labels along with perfume and handbags. They’re a fashion-flaunting opportunity, a trend investment. Hearing aids are marketed at mature, heterosexual, Caucasian couples who like cruises, beaches and reading with a strong light over their shoulder. Their selling point is that they are discreet – like Tena pads. They most certainly do indicate failings but the failure is in their design values and their functionality:

You can’t shower in hearing aids, cue Psycho.

You can’t swim in hearing aids, cue Jaws.

Try lifting your arms above your head and they whistle, rubbish for yoga.

And most importantly, you can’t sleep in them.

‘Bed is for sleeping,’ said more than one young audiologist to me, acknowledging my DOB. ‘Yes, but when you have a new partner you need to hear directions.’

‘I have to tell you, Elaine,’ whispered one ex, after a steamy session, ‘that my teeth are not all my own.’ And ‘I have to tell you that I wear two hearing aids,’ says me. I’d pulled them out at half-time, in frustration at their squealing, and chucked them across the bedroom floor; down on my knees the morning after, searching the shag pile. Yes, it’s a boon on bus or plane. When life gets too loud, I can take out my ‘aids’ and retreat into the fug, but I long for the day when I tell someone new that I wear them and they don’t reply in a conspiratory whisper behind a cupped hand, ‘Oh, you’d never know.’

Elaine Kingett runs creative writing holidays in Spain and Wales and workshops in London; for more information check out Write It Down.

51 thoughts on “That IS My Age: wearing hearing aids

  1. I went to my ear, nose and throat guy…and said to him “I need hearing aids”. I said this about 2 or 3 years ago.
    He chuckled as he said I was on the only patient (I was 66 then) that asked for them. Many would rather not ask. I wear them…yes it’s hard to see them..but I tell quite a few people I wear them…I feel very fortunate that I can purchase something that gives me a better quality of life.
    …while many of my friends continue to be in denial and continue to ask “What did you say?” to me and to many others…and miss much of conversation in film.

  2. I’m 53 and been wearing hearing aids for 4 years now, about to upgrade to new ones. Too many rock concerts for me too. They have changed my life. I can hear my 12 year old daughter and my husband – even when I don’t want to. Just wish they weren’t so expensive.

  3. I also have hearing aids, just acquired at age 68 – not so much for my slight hearing loss but to try to help with tinnitus which is really REALLY annoying. It has made me feel very old, mainly I guess because of my perception of hearing aid wearers. Suddenly my “statement” white-grey hair has become just part of being old. Depressing.

  4. I was so amazed to see this post! I am 55 and I started to wear hearing aids last year. My hear had got worse quite suddenly, over about 2 years I would say, but I was convinced I had a problem with my sinuses…not so, said the ear, nose and throat man (who also found a goiter in my neck, but that’s another story…) Anyway, I am so happy I can hear what people are saying again. I would rather tell people as I still sometimes am not sure what is being said if there’s a lot of background noise, and as it happened quite quickly I do not have the lip reading/guessing ability of my husband (who had been in denial about his own hearing for years). I have the sort that go right in the ears so they are not really visible and also I can do yoga etc in them. It’s a problem at pool parties though…yes, I live in Spain. We must be more open about it! It is nothing to be ashamed of.

  5. I have worn hearing aids for quite a few years. I am now 60. And I can completely relate to the “old” connotation that they have. People often joke about hearing aids and being old, but you never hear the same jokes regarding needing glasses. I do not advertise the fact that I wear them. But I am thankful for them and thankful that we live in a time when they are available. I don’t want to miss out on life because I can’t hear.

  6. I wear one hearing aid and have since I was about 58. A whole lotta rock ‘n’ roll:) I call it my “ear computer” and freely admit to wearing one, even removing it and waving it around to show others who likely need one, but are hesitant. It is, indeed, like glasses, a quality of life enhancer. I figure I’m doing my part to diffuse the shame and pity. I also reccomend psychotherapy to everyone!

  7. There is a huge market out there that is being missed. I imagine somebody will jump on it in the next few years as we boomers need them more and more. If reading glasses are cool and completely acceptable, and all sorts of techno futuristic prostheses elicit awe, and ear buds and headphones are fashion accessories then why do hearing devices still carry a stigma? I wear them in both ears and would much rather take advantage of whatever can enhance my natural abilities then miss out. Make them look like rock star ear pieces. Make them a fashion statement or not but wear them proudly and know you made a decision that helps you live your best life. Perhaps increasing the market will help drive the outrageous costs down too.

  8. I was diagnosed with bi-lateral hearing loss in my early 40s and now in my early 50s wear NHS hearing aids. The article above things true with me, I find wearing them largely a nuisance and without them I am in a bubble of silence. I am restricted in how I wear my hair as I do not wish to ‘show the bulky hearing aids off’ so no up-dos for me. It is sometimes embarrassing to admit to hearing loss when despite wearing hearing aids shops, restaurants and bars can be noisy places and although one can get away with asking someone to repeat something once or maybe twice constantly straining to hear and then mis-hearing can lead to some strange looks as I have replied incorrectly.
    I wish I could afford the discrete, (I laughed at the Tena pads comment) hidden private hearing aids with their snazzy programming which okay will never be as good as normal hearing but a big improvement on what the NHS offers.
    I sometimes think that those of us with hearing loss are an ignored ‘invisible’ breed. As mentioned we are not all cruise loving, so how about a good re-think about the demographic age of hearing aid wearers and how we are not all in our dotage with a couldn’t give a damn attitude to our whistling ears but and still are stylish, intelligent, interested and interesting beings and one day perhaps hearing aids will have the same style, recognition and acceptance as specs.

  9. I have worn hearing aids for 7 years and was first diagnosed as needing them 10 years before that, at the age of 52. I was shocked and upset at the time but now realise what a fool I was to turn them down at that stage. Now I wouldn’t be without them. Very few people realise I have them – and they are the NHS ones with the battery behind my ears – but they enable me to participate fully in conversations and engage with my grandchildren. My ex husband refuses to wear them due to vanity and it is noticeable that people get
    irritated with him and he is becoming more socially isolated and the grandchildren no longer want to spend much time with him.
    PS If they are whistling they need adjusting – mine developed a whistle and a 15 minutes with a technician and they are now fine.

  10. Beautiful photograph – I kept scrolling back up to admire. Hard to believe anyone would care if you wore hearing aids or not but I guess it has a stigma.
    I can’t wait to get my rail card, the cost of London travel is a killer! Mind you at 49 I still have a way off yet & I’m predicting the age will go up before I reach it anyway. No such thing as a free ride for Gen X 😉

  11. Re Jacqueline’s PS – on whistling mine don’t whistle as soon as they start to I have the tubing changed and have new moulds made agree. Agree with you that I would rather have NHS aids than none at all, as that would be even more socially isolating.
    Think my hearing loss was caused by attending too many loud gigs when I was younger.

  12. My sister’s hearing was damaged by a difficult birth, and she has always worn hearing aids. After a long and difficult struggle to be accepted on various courses she was on a BBC TV programme, as apparently she is the only hearing-impaired person in the country in her profession. Despite our familiarity with her hearing aids, her father was extremely resistant when he needed them – “I don’t want them calling me deafy” – presumably with the connotation of slowness mentioned by Elaine.

    It’s time perceptions of hearing aid wearers evolved beyond unthinking prejudice. Thank you for your article Elaine.

  13. I am the 53-year old wife of a 53-year old husband who refused hearing aids for years until he realized two years ago that if he wanted to coach our 12-year old’s sports teams he needed to be able hear better. He wouldn’t trade his aids for anything now, regardless of any ageism we encounter. But I’m writing to stress a larger point — people who don’t hear well are not only isolated, they are isolating as well. My son and I had reached a point with my husband that there were many conversations, quiet asides, or timely jokes that we simply didn’t share with him because we couldn’t. Repeating yourself is tiresome, and some things lose their humor in the retelling. I found myself losing my friend because we weren’t able to share experiences. Easy for me to say because I don’t have hearing aids (yet), but I urge anyone whose hearing is less than it should be to realize they are missing out on more than just traffic sounds and TV news.

  14. Hurray for this brilliant and beautifully written post from Elaine. I SO agree that wearing specs is something to be sought out, a positive statement whereas hearing aids – yuk! Who ever would consider hearing aids to be a fashion accessory?! Time for a cool designer to put their name to hearing aid design. A huge market opportunity and what a positive impact that kind of marketing tie up could have on a whole generation of image-aware-older-and-still-groovy-people!

  15. I have not been to a movie theatre for the last 20 years. This past weekend I went twice – Inferno and Fantastic Beasts, with my grown-up grandsons. The dialogue all sounded muffled – I assumed it was the extremely loud audio. I asked the Gsons if they were able to hear the dialogue clearly – they said they had no problem.
    Does this experience denote hearing loss? It’s not that I would object to hearing aids – it’s the sudden possibility that something else is failing!

    1. It means you need to get your hearing checked- which isn’t the same thing! My partner’s life was transformed by hearing aids in his mid fifties so I assumed when I had a similar experience to you that I might need help as a result of all that concert going throughput my life. But no, it was wax build up and easily dealt with, however it was really good to have had the check up which was free at Boots.

  16. It is more of a thankful issue—we should be extremely thankful that there is a device out there that can help us in this arena as we grow older. If we are blessed enough to get older, then of course, the body parts won’t be as functional as before!!
    My mom fought me for years about needing hearing aids, but once she had them, she kept telling me how much her friends needed them!!
    I’m sure I will need them too—the dental drill day after day was quite the constant noise in my life! But I hope to have a good perspective about them—let everyone see my hearing aids—I am old and proud of it!!

  17. Great post. The more we talk about this issue the less stigma will be attached to it. I agree that there is a long way to go but don’t forget that hearing aids are not just for older people. I’ve worn mine since childhood as I was born with severe hearing impairment. Being a teenager with hearing aids is so much worse than at 50, when I care so much less about what other people think.

    My main frustration is with people who so obviously need hearing aids but refuse to get them. If tools are available to make life easier, why not use them? Even NHS hearing aids are a far sight better than the giant ones available in the 1970s. They may not be as small as the expensive ones but you can customize them. David Hockney used to paint his in funky colours. Embrace them and you will find that others do too.

  18. I would never have guessed at some of those shortcomings… not good for yoga, etc.

    I had my hearing tested this year (54). I’m fine for now. I had an aunt who was deaf since her early childhood, so I consider hearing to be especially precious. Any barrier that can lead to isolation needs to be overcome. So I say yes to hearing aids and pray I’ll be able to afford them when the time comes.

    By the way, I think your bedroom experience would be great in a movie, truly. I’m still chuckling.

  19. Very interesting discussion. I might well get my ears tested ! For those of us in the UK, there is a Channel 4 documentary on tonight following a group of deaf people who get cochlear implants fitted and may be able to hear for the first time. Not the same as hearing aids obviously, but the doctor involved spoke this morning on the Today programme saying that their aim is to show how easy it can be to tackle hearing problems. Perhaps this issue is moving up the agenda…

  20. Ladies you truly inspire me. At 59 (ok a couple months off 60) I have finally accepted the fact that I am increasingly hard of hearing but on reading your comments have just made an appointment to get it sorted. Oh I cant wait for the joy of once more being able to hear whats being said to me!!!!

  21. Wow! Interesting subject. I do see a design challenge here, as I think most hearing aids are impossible to deal with, especially when you get really old. There is a lot to improve on, both in wearability as in sound quality.
    During my studies I did research after language development in deaf children. A surprising thing I learned was that the old fashioned hearing trumpet was actually a rather good hearing aid, as it enabled the listener to isolate sound by aiming the trumpet what or whom they wanted to hear, and helped the speaker to make themselves heard by talking into the trumpet. Like cupped hands, but much better. It doesn’t distort sound. It’s hands on and very easy to manage, no adjusting or fiddling around with tiny batteries.
    Of course, it’s not discreet nor is it practical when you’re out and about, but it might be something to try if you want to have a conversation in a crowd, or in more private surroundings – like the bedroom.
    A few years ago I even met someone who used two kitchen funnels that were connected to each other with a piece of garden hose for conversations at the kitchen table. She just never got the hang of her hearing aids, and those funnels served her fine.

  22. Great Post! I am not sure why my multi focal contacts are cool and ok and the same sort of hearing implements are not ? Surely Bluetooth etc can help ?

  23. I felt very sad at many of the above comments about wearing hearing aids. Having worn hearing aids for over 15 years and enjoying the improved quality of life that they offer , my hearing dropped to a level this last year where hearing aids no longer help.
    My only options at this point were deafness or a Cochlear Implant . I feel very fortunate to have been able to opt for an implant.
    This involved an operation and now I hear using a behind the ear processor ( about 2″ long) much larger than the biggest NHS hearing aid. This connects by a 3″ wire to a magnet under my scalp. This is not only ungainly to wear but is quite easily knocked off the head with excessive movement. I do Iyengar yoga and the only way is to wear a sweat band to keep it on the head whilst hanging upside down . I should also mention it does not return normal hearing but you have to learn to decipher electronic sounds , and eventually understand speech again. This takes six months of training your brain to understand the sounds.
    I think complaining about a half inch modern hearing aid or the inner ear Aids is beyond ridiculous. They are barely visible ! They work incredibly well .
    I know only too well how people feel deafness is the one disability it’s fine to laugh at , I know how irritating it is to have to take it off for swimming ,etc. Not to mentioning charging of controllers etc.
    I also know how frightening severe deafness is , so enjoy your hearing , forget about the aid and get on with improved life they offer you. Being able to hear beats vanity for sure.

  24. Hearing aids. Something the Apple people need to get to work on. They design all those sexy computers, earbuds, etc….certainly a sexy, stylish, functional hearing aid would be a piece of cake for them. And imagine the stampede to the Apple Store! It could be a status symbol not a senior symbol.

  25. There are fabulous and stylish hearing aids on the market right now and the technology is amazing. I have 2 Oticon aids. Yes they are extremely expensive, about $5,000 each which is what the problem really is. No insurance covers these aids in the US. Mine are old now and I would love to upgrade but no way can I on my small fixed income. I am thrilled I can hear and they are indeed programmable it is just a learning curve like all technology. A poignant aside, my Dad sold hearing aids years and years ago and would come home and tell my mom and I stories about how vain “old” people were who would not wear aids. Then when his hearing went (and in a big way) long after he stopped selling them; he refused to wear them! My mom was beside herself at his deafness. I finally convinced him to get them through the VA (he was a decorated vet and they were free for him). I was with him when he had them adjusted and he had the technician adjust them so low that he still couldn’t hear. He was so very stubborn or, perhaps he liked not hearing. Who knows.

  26. Awwww. I REALLY thank you for posting this. This is my dirty little secret–that I wear hearing aids. It makes me feel older than I feel inside. I miss lots of conversation. My hearing aids are really good ones: Phonak. Exceedingly expensive. Hardly anyone I know wears them. It’s difficult to explain to people what this experience is like–for example try thinking about a sentence where you hear only some vowels. Yeah.
    The kids and young adults with hearing loss are brave souls who have a lifetime of hearing disability to look forward to so I shouldn’t be whining. I lost a great deal of hearing in my left ear at around menopause: 45-50. At about 55 I had to start wearing hearing aids in both ears. Your reader Lynda is exactly right: no insurance company will cover hearing aids so it’s out of pocket 5K USD at least. My one parting comment is: if you know someone with hearing loss try to speak slowly and enunciate. Hearing is best for us if you’re at least 2 feet or closer. You usually don’t have to yell. Again, I thank you for this posting. I suspect more and more boomers will be wearing these babies.

  27. Read this…and you will go for hearing aids:

    Can Wearing Hearing Aids Help Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?

    For several years researchers have been studying the impact of other conditions on the development of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. DepressionOne of these comorbidities is hearing loss, which when undiagnosed or untreated has been linked to loss of cognitive function and higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The exact mechanisms are still being evaluated, but the following four hypotheses merit further research.
    Social engagement

    When you can’t hear well socializing becomes a chore rather than a pleasure. Conversations with others, especially in noisy parties or crowded restaurants, are often exercises in frustration as you strain to hear what is being said. You may find friends and family talking around you as if you’re invisible, or that you receive fewer invitations to events because others are frustrated by having to constantly repeat things or shout so you hear them. You might decide to avoid social situations that can become embarrassing, aggravating, or leave you feeling more left out than staying home alone. However, lack of socializing poses a serious risk to your mental health, as isolation has been strongly linked to a greater likelihood of developing forms of dementia. Everyone needs regular social stimulation to keep our brains functioning at peak performance.
    Mental acuity

    Hearing loss means more than just missing a word or two. You often cannot understand what is being said. Struggling to process auditory input and make sense of it affects your brain directly. One significant study revealed people with poor hearing had less gray matter in the region of their brain required for speech comprehension (auditory cortex). Even if your hearing loss is considered mild, you have greater difficulty understanding and memorizing input, which contributes to mental decline.
    Sensory overload

    While you’re brain is fighting to hear and understand, resources usually dedicated to memory and higher thinking reroute to your overtaxed auditory center. As a result, your memory and general cognitive abilities begin to fail. Sensory overload also poses a risk to your physical health because it puts you at greater risk of falling, which can lead to head injuries that also pose a serious threat to your long-term mental health.
    Strikes common area of the brain

    Less certain is whether the same failure in the brain is responsible for loss of ability to process speech and mental function, which could indicate age-related hearing loss (Presbycusis) is an actual symptom of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Future studies will examine the possibility of a common root cause, but for now this remains speculation.

    We still have much more to learn before any definitive conclusions can be drawn. However, enough data is now available for medical experts to advise older people with hearing loss to treat their condition as part of a healthy routine intended to avoid onset of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Wearing hearing aids can help you enjoy social situations again, improve mental sharpness, and avoid cognitive overload. They’re not just good for your ears ―they’re good for your brain!

  28. Once when I went to my audiologist…I said I forget to put them on sometimes…She said…the above….Please read the above article.
    I always wear my hearing aids even in the house while watching the news or a film…so I can “interact” mentally with what is being said.

  29. I am 49 and got the first pair at 42. I should have had them as a baby as my hearing loss is something I inherited.
    In Denmark you can have them for free, if you are prepared to wait for a year. So I have the 2015 Oticon topmodel and will be able to have a new pair in 2019 or 2020 if the waiting list is long at the time.
    I will start using them at home too after reading the comment above:)

  30. I am 57 years old and l have vision loss due to a familial history of retinal detachment so therefore I wear glasses. I also have hearing loss due to a familial history of late onset hearing loss so therefore I wear hearing aids. These two supports I use in my day to day life help me to be more connected and interactive with my world. I am sort of vain because I want awesome glasses which look cool and awesome hearing aids which allow me to connect to my phone, computer and are white. You see I think of white as a cool Apple color and want them to be noticed by others. Rather than thinking of my glasses/hearing aids as something to hide I want both to be something to start conversations! Full disclosure – I work in the field of hearing loss but personally am more concerned my full head of gray curly hair stays relevant! Love this website and have so enjoyed all of the comments!

  31. Many people commenting here that they would like to see hearing aids that are bold and exciting. The jeweller Colette Hazelwood (I think Manchester based) did just this in 2002 – perhaps ahead of her time as she doesn’t seem to feature them on her website? Perhaps a feature, Alyson could help her reach a market eager for this?

  32. I am 73 years of age and have worn hearing aids for ten years. I have a genetic component along with an age component to my hearing loss. Although I recently purchased new hearing aids that work well, I have reached a point that even with hearing aids my hearing is impaired. I am currently taking an American Sign Language class as is my partner. It is one of the most difficult things I have done but I know that I must do everything I can do to stay connected. I have read the literature on dementia and hearing loss and am hoping the new language skills will help me avoid dementia. As I discuss my hearing loss with others, I find that there are so many older people who have a hearing problem but are in denial. The more the problem is discussed, the more we help diminish any stigma that might be attached.

      1. Also Allyson…not so sure how I found this site…maybe through you or one of your viewers.
        Terrific Women….thriving 70 and beyond.

        Just a reminder to all women….With all our challenges….never lose your sexuality and sensuality.

  33. Had a surgery b/c of an tumor in my inner ear, which was followed by hear loss over the years, until I got deef now.
    My Doc recommended to try hearing aids, so I’m greateful for your post and the thoughtful comments.
    One of my biggest problems was, to hear the alarm clock in the morning. Most nights I sleep on the ear which is the hearing one.
    Now I use a Fitbit bracelet for my weak up call. The bracelet vibrates soft at the wrist and thats ok with me. For the most bracelets you can install the App on your Smartphone to change weak up time if neccessary. But never forget to synchronize;-)-

    1. Barbara,

      A Fitbit is what makes me hear or feel my iPhone ringing, when I’m out and about.

      I had problems hearing it, when there is a lot of noise and for some reason – or my rather special hearing loss on the middle tones – the direct sound from the iPhone to my hearing aids doesn’t work for me.

      So Thumbs up for a Fitbit:)

      1. You can get alarm clocks that not only sound an alarm but vibrate. I put it under my pillow and you can’t miss it. There is a web site that sells all sorts of accessories for deaf people. Like amplifiers for the phone , loud door bells etc.

        It used to be Society for the deaf but it changed its name.

        1. Jill, Thank you for the info.
          The Fitbit gives me, what I need for now – and my heart rate and sleep pattern too:)
          But it is good to know all the stuff that someone with other needs can get. I for one didn’t know that.

          1. Liselotte and Jill, I have only recently found out that for those of us with hearing loss some local authorities will loan brand new equipment from the Action for Hearing Loss catalogue. I found this out a few weeks ago and after a home visit I am now awaiting delivery of an alarm clock, telephone and a wifi addition to help me hear the television without having to turn the volume up disturbing my other half. It would be worth you finding out if your local authority runs the same scheme. They also provide loud foor bells and smoke alarms as well as mobile phones etc.

  34. Sarah

    Great you are doing sign language. I did British sign language level with one with my best friends, I also found it so hard , keep it up.
    If hearing aids no longer give you good speech discrimination why don’t you consider a Cochlear Implant. If you are American most insurance companies will cover one. Other wise they are expensive but will enable you to understand speech better especially if you keep a HA in your better ear and have the CI in your worst ear.

  35. I’ve been hard of hearing all my life and worn hearing aids since my mid 30s (a while ago …) free on our beloved National Health Service in the UK. I used to paint them (copying David Hockney) but an audiologist told me this wasn’t brilliant for the hearing aids. Four or five years ago, I was got offered a middle ear implant, also free. It’s a fiddly op to insert the impant under the skin behind the ear. Once the wound’s healed you get fitted with a magnetic receiver thing (the technical term) which clamps on behind the ear & is calibrated to your hearing loss. To be honest, I think for me the quality isn’t much different from a hearing aid, but my issue was ear infections caused by the hearing aids, which meant they were often useless. So the implants are great except that they do go off when entering and/or leaving certain stores, meaning store detectives leap to my side.

  36. I’ve been wearing glasses since 1965, and guess what? You can’t shower in them, You can’t swim in them. (Well, you can, but they might fall off, and you can’t see much when they’re covered with water.) You can’t sleep in them, and they do get in the way during sex, so they’re usually off then, too. And now I’m getting older, but the thought of hearing aids bothers me a lot less than the aches and pains I feel after doing even light housework, let alone heavy gardening. Looks are subjective, but pain is a real pain!

  37. I’m thrilled about this post. Seriously. I’m not “happy” for anyone needing hearing aids, but I’m glad that the discussion of imperfection and what happens with youth waving buh-bye is alive and well.
    While I’m surprised that I haven’t suffered hearing loss yet–I’ve always played my music from my beloved Ray Davies of the Kinks to Schubert at 11! I need loud!
    But–I suffer from hair loss and rather than an aid to hear, I need an aid to “hair”! It’s kind of a funny thing because I’m cross-eyed too. But somehow it all works out!
    There is good in everything and with taking the hearing aids out you don’t have to listen to those people who are obnoxious or nasty or super, duper loud! I love this post!

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