What I Hear

Life with hearing loss

Holidays and Hearing Loss

Hearing isn't necessary for a joyous holiday, but friends and family are.

December is one holiday after another, especially if you start with Thanksgiving. This year Hannuka followed right onThanksgiving. Now Christmas is upon us, and then New Years. 

The holidays mean family gatherings and large boisterous groups of people in your dining room, parties, religious services, Christmas caroling, New Year's reveling. None of these are easy for those of us with hearing loss.

Let's start with the family gatherings. Maybe you've trained your spouse to speak directly to you and slowly and articulately. Maybe you've even pounded the idea into your teenager's head. But get Grandma and little niece Katie and your two brothers who haven't seen each other since last Christmas all in one room—and forget about hearing. You won't hear Grandma because her voice has gotten so weak with age. You won't hear adorable Katie because she's only four and she doesn't know how to articulate. The brothers will be booming, overwhelming everyone else. 

Still, I love Christmas. And Thanksgiving. And New Years. And if I were Jewish I'd love Hannuka too. 

I love to cook, though I'm no gourmet. Nothing gives me more pleasure than putting a delicious meal on the table and gathering friends and family around, taking out Mom's silver and my wedding china. I love to see everyone enjoying my food, and enjoying each other. Sometimes I can talk a bit with whoever is next to me. But mostly I bask in the event I've created, the people I've brought together, the food I've prepared for them. If I get tired from smiling at things I can't hear, I can bustle into the kitchen.

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I know some of you will criticize my family and friends for not including me, but you know what? They can't. The only way they can truly include me—given the extent and severity of my hearing loss—would be for me to install looping in my dining room and then have everyone speak one at a time into a mic. In my opinion, that would put quite a damper on the jolly, joyous course of a meal. 

I have this year found a church not too far from me that has looping, and I will for the first time in decades go to church on Christmas Eve and actually hear something—maybe even the music. I'm looking foward to it. 

If I had a list to send to Santa, the first thing on it might be to get my hearing back. But I've learned a lot from my hearing loss, I've made a lot of new friends, I've found a cause to fight for. So I'm not sure I'd actually want my hearing back.

The second thing on my list would be better hearing instruments. I have a cochlear implant and a serious hearing aid, I have various hearing assistive technologies. They are all inadequate. And at least in the case of some of the assistive technologies, they are made up of too many moving parts—one element is usually on the blink. They're also confusing to use.

As someone once said to me, Where is the Steve Jobs of hearing loss? Hearing aids are great. Cochlear implants are too. I wouldn't want to spend a day without them. But they're not great enough. Surely we have the technological knowhow to make a hearing aid that can filter unwanted noise so that we can hear a speaker. Apparently we don't though, or the hearing aid companies don't care to invest in it. For people with mild to moderate loss, the solution in noise (a restaurant) is to take the hearing aid off. For people with severe hearing loss, like me, if you take it off you can't hear a thing, so you try to ignore the background din and pick up whatever voice sound you can. Lip reading helps. 

The third thing on my list would for hearing aids and cochlear implants to be covered by insurance. And not just for a single hearing aid or implant. If you have bilateral hearing loss, you need two hearing aids or two cochlear implants. But trying telling that to your insurance carrier, or Medicare. Not that they pay for hearing aids at all, most of the time. But many do pay for a single cochlear implant. That gets you partway there. 

But back to the holidays. Come one, come all. Sing, celebrate, eat, drink. I won't hear you, but I'll be happy. 

Katherine Bouton, a former editor at The New York Times, is the author of Shouting Won't Help: Why I—and 50 Million Other Americans—Can't Hear You.

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