Chemo probably accelerated my hearing loss over the last seven years, but I ended up with a prescription for hearing aids four years ago. I was 74, but this is not especially early for hearing aids and people who have never had chemo often need them at 70+. I bought them. I had a pair in my possession for three years, but I never wore them. I hated them.
They made the inside of my ears itch and amplified background noise as much as they amplified any one’s voice. You had to fiddle with an app to make voices audible in different situations. These aids had batteries that had to be changed every week. I only wore them if I absolutely had to, like in public meetings, when I’m in the back of the room, and a white woman is giving a talk by whispering into a mike, or when I am at a dinner table with more than six people.
I couldn’t wear them in the gym, or jogging, or climbing because they fell out. I couldn’t hook them up to the TV or the phone because they didn’t have Bluetooth. They came in one color called flesh tone, a sort of pinkish gray that is possessed by no actual human being, and you had to put them in a special dryer at night because they retained moisture. The dryer cost another 100 dollars or so. Furthermore, you had to actually had to change the batteries more than once a week, whether they ran out or not, because you didn’t want them to die in the middle of a conversation.
If it weren’t for the sheer inconvenience and itchiness, the stigma attached to them would turn you of all by itself. Hearing aids symbolize old age, deteriorating senses, and declining abilities. There is, however, a secret upside to these phenomena, like there is to having cataracts (I had that surgery too). I know it’s important to hear things people say and to see clearly, but I also was okay before I had the cataracts removed, walking around in a less bright, less intense, less noisy world. I sometimes miss that slight golden haze cast over the world by cataracts and the softer, gentler soundscape produced by mild to moderate hearing loss.
When I was a kid, my hearing was so acute, it drove me crazy, especially in the dorms at college. I didn’t get much sleep until I discovered ear plugs. They were one of the great discoveries of my young adulthood. One of the best things about the new hearing aids is that you can turn them down, if the world gets too noisy.
I was not too worried about how terrible hearing aid were when I got my first pair. I knew the Baby Boomers where coming. I was born 1 year before the first Baby Boomers. I am, therefore, not a Baby Boomer. As a result, if I need something that isn’t available yet, I can be fairly sure that it will soon arrive. Baby Boomers are not only the largest group in the population, but they are also the richest. When I was in my 20s, hatchbacks came along in time for my days as a young mother. When my kids were born, we bought a house just as prices began to more than double every 10 years. By the time I was 45, scientists had discovered retinol—a facelift in a jar. Baby Boomers are an economic inspiration. So, for the past three years now, I have been expecting better hearing aids to arrive.
I remember being appalled by hearing aids when I was a child. They were bulging and ugly and seem to be worn entirely by old men with huge, hairy ears who inhabited the smoking cars on trains. That’s right, trains. I’m old enough to have taken the train from L.A. to Chicago because flying was too expensive. You had to go through the “Club Car” to get to the dining room. The Club Car was where you could smoke. Thus, my impression of hearing aids. Right after you start wearing hearing aids, you get a cane. Next, you need a walker, then a wheelchair. It is the top of the hill on the slippery slope toward the grave.
Today, however, half of the people in the world walk around with earphones on their heads or earbuds sticking out of their ears. Apple wireless earbuds are more ridiculous looking than my hearing aids, which are lightyears different from the ones my mother struggled with. Those magnified the background noise to the point where she jumped out of her skin whenever a bagger flipped a paper bag open in the supermarket. She said it sounded like a gunshot.
Algorhythms allow the new hearing aids to adjust automatically to various levels of background noise without any fiddling with an app. There is an app if you need it, but the app used to be the only way you could adjust for background noise. Now, the aids do that. Even more amazing, they stop tinnitus completely (as far as I can tell).
I feel safer with them on. I walk on city streets a lot, and it helps to hear a skate boarder a block away or the whirr of an electric bike. There are so many diverse kinds of vehicles on the road—electric skateboards and scooters, electric bikes and carts, wheelchairs, in line skaters. You need every kind of information you can get.
I was surprised to discover that a modern hearing aid is a tiny mike that is inserted into the ear canal. I never realized it was a mike, and once you know that, lots of irritating things make sense. For example, the wind sounds so much louder when it hits those mics head-on. You need to wear a hoodie outside to cover the mics when it’s windy. But it’s lovely to hear the birds again.
I mentioned one of the most helpful features already: They can be turned down. There are eight volume settings above normal, so you can turn things up beyond what normal people can hear. There also eight settings below normal, so you can tune things down or even out. This is an excellent feature when the people next door has a party and you want to work, when someone’s on the phone in the next room, or watching football on TV. You can even turn them off on one side if you get a table next to the kitchen in a restaurant.
Technology is making aging a lot easier. I can tell my Alexa to remind me to water the plants or add chlorine to the hot tub. I can use it to create a shopping list as I go along. I just yell “Echo, add string beans to the shopping list,” and it’s done. We changed Alexa’s name to Echo because our daughter is named Alexis and it keep asking us what we wanted every time her name came up. My watch reminds me of what I’m supposed to be doing and notifies me when I have a message or a phone call. There is almost nothing my phone doesn’t know. Not just directions, but when Neanderthals roamed the earth or the best time to visit the DMV.
Here are some things I am currently predicting (based on my own needs and those of my friends). Soon, they will find a cure for baldness, a way to treat arthritis, a new pain killer that won’t give you ulcers, and, of course, my dream machine: a robot that follows me around with my glasses, my phone, and my drink. Eventually, this guy will be able to get me out of bed, help me dress, give me a bath and sing me to sleep. Then, there is the coming metaverse in virtual reality so I can “see” my friends, climb Mount Kilimanjaro in my pajamas, and roam the supermarket shelves from my armchair. Who could ask for anything more?