The clunky, screeching, analog hearing aids with replaceable batteries and tiny controls of years past are now inconspicuous, digital, smartphone friendly, rechargeable models with high-fidelity sound. But, although hearing aids are smaller, better and easier to manage than ever, the World Health Organization estimated last spring that only 17 percent of persons who would benefit from hearing aids actually use them. Two local hearing specialists would like to see this change, and not just for Springfield seniors.
Tyler Wilsman is a state-licensed hearing instrument specialist at Sam's Club in Springfield. "We are starting to see a shift to lower ages," says Wilsman. "I just fit a 25-year-old for hearing aids a month ago."
Christine Bitzer, Springfield Clinic audiologist, agrees. "Young people in their early thirties are noticing that hearing loss, sometimes from exposure to loud farm work or military noise, for example, is affecting their jobs and communication. Others had severe ear infections as children."
Bitzer sees a benefit in going to a clinic for a hearing exam. There, she says, staff is available if there is a need for ear wax cleaning prior to testing, and to address other medical concerns.
For others, a medical exam isn't a necessary first step. Wilsman conducts a thorough hearing test in a sound booth, selects and programs hearing aids based on the results of the test and the goals of the patient, refines the tuning, and often sends patients home with new hearing aids to try for several weeks. The exam is free and patients are allowed to come back locally or to any Sam's Club that has a hearing center as often as they like for adjustments.
After the Sam's Club sound and word recognition tests, Springfield resident Noel Dalbey purchased a set of small 94-channel behind-the-ear hearing aids about a year ago.
"I noticed I was saying 'what?' in conversations more, asking the grandkids to repeat themselves, and turning up the TV. Tyler did the tests and, on the one- and two-syllable word test, I found out I was missing more than 50 percent of the words. That was the real turning point. When you are missing that many words in a conversation, it makes a big difference." Wilsman programmed a set of hearing aids for Dalbey and let him try them during a conversation in the store. "I could hear him and understand the conversation better than when I went in," says Dalbey. "They make everything a lot clearer."
Bitzer understands that patients are often reluctant to commit to the expense of hearing aids on a first visit. But the extended time spent at home during the COVID pandemic has shown more people the need for amplification. "People are home with their families and realize they can't hear them. If your family starts complaining, come in for a baseline exam. See where your hearing loss is and get some listening suggestions." People seem to be more at ease with that before jumping in to make a decision, she says. "I let them know they're never obligated. It's a lot of information, and it's a big expense to put out right there and then."
"Before you even consider amplification," Bitzer continues, "check with your insurance company first. A lot of insurers are starting to pay. And if you checked some time ago, check again." Even as recently as two years ago, she says, some of the policies were changing. "And if you have a good benefit, use it now before they take it away. Benefits change from year to year."
Something else people don't know, Bitzer says, is this: "Sertoma can help provide reconditioned hearing aids, with an audiologist's referral. There is a short application for financial qualification. And veterans can contact Veterans Administration hospitals about benefits."
Once you get hearing aids, give yourself time to adjust. Dalbey went back to Sam's a few times to have some of the frequencies adjusted. And, he says, it does take a few months to get used to hearing the full range of sounds again. "It was three or four months before I finally quit being startled by common noises." He says he heard doors shutting, and new noises and squeaks in the house and car that he either hadn't heard or had been hearing differently for years. "Running water sounded like dumping marbles into the sink." But that's all fine now, the TV is easier to hear, and "music sounds better now, too."
He offers this advice. "If you're having any hearing issues, go in and have your hearing tested. Put a set on and see how much better you hear. You don't have to worry about wearing hearing aids any more. Everybody in the world is wearing headphones or earbuds or headsets. They're smaller and better now, more of a natural thing, like glasses. It's a normal thing now."
DiAnne Crown is an almost-retired feature writer who, if the need for watching PBS programs with the subtitles on is any indication, will be wearing new hearing aids any minute now. For more, visit www.seasonsofparenting.com.