Birthdays can be tough. Especially the big ones. Do we celebrate a milestone or mourn the passing of another decade? Do we invite our closest friends and treat them to a jolly home-cooked meal? Do we have a dance party for 60? Do we go to a fancy restaurant with a spouse or significant other—or do we pretend it isn’t happening?

My birthday, which is this week, is always vexed, for many different reasons. But recently, like much else in my life, the birthday vexation has to do with hearing loss. The older I get, the more often my hearing loss is attributed to aging. I'm eligible for Medicare so of course I have hearing loss! That seems to be the general assumption.

Anyone who has read my book  “Shouting Won’t Help” knows that I’ve been half-deaf since the tender age of 30, that my hearing loss has nothing to do with age. But the stigma of age is so powerful that despite my history, people nod in knowing agreement and murmur that yes, their hearing is going too. Or, worse, yes their mother's hearing is going too! Just one of those things…

Even the NIDCD links hearing loss to aging: “Hearing loss is a common disorder associated with aging. About 30-35 percent of adults between the ages of 65 and 75 years have a hearing loss. It is estimated that 40-50 percent of people 75 and older have a hearing loss.”

I don’t dispute their figures, but they neglect to mention that the vast majority of those with “age-related hearing loss—presbycusis—began to lose their hearing long before they were old.

I spend a lot of time try to expunge the association of hearing loss with aging. I point out that 55 percent of those with hearing loss in this country are under the age of 60. I point out that only 8 percent of men and 16 percent of women begin to experience hearing loss after 70, the age at which “age-related hearing loss” begins —according to the very same NIDCD.

The fact that I’m getting older (not yet old enough for age-related hearing loss!) and deafer, therefore, just seems like a natural development. But I’ve been getting deafer every year since I was 30, and I refuse to accept that any further loss now has to do with the fact that I’m eligible for Medicare. More denial? Maybe.

But hearing loss is vexing at birthday time for another reason. Your birthday is supposed to be your day. Your day to be pampered, to be the center of attention, to be toasted and feted. But for people with hearing loss that often involves tradeoffs. Do you go to a restaurant with friends even though you know you probably won’t be able to hear them? I do, because I like the company of friends and family, and I like good food. But it’s not without cost.

Last year I had a BIG birthday. I wrote an op-ed about it in the Times, which included the following passage:

“Earlier this week I had dinner with my husband and sister (both with normal hearing) and my daughter, son and niece, all 20-somethings, in a popular Brooklyn restaurant. It was my birthday and I had a great time, enjoying my family and the good food, but I didn’t hear one word said at the table. My daughter occasionally texted me a shorthand version of the conversation.”

The hate mail I got! The people who accused my family of being selfish and thoughtless, choosing a noisy restaurant for my birthday! The nasty remarks about the “charity” of my daughter in providing the occasional text.

I actually loved that birthday. I loved having my adult kids and other relatives with me. I loved seeing a hip Brooklyn restaurant in full swing. In fact I chose the restaurant. I loved the pizza! So buzz off, I wanted to say.

But now it’s birthday time again. This year I’ll celebrate with my husband and two close friends. We’ll go to an elegant “quiet” restaurant. But in fact no restaurant is quiet. The clatter of a waiter clearing or setting a table, of silverware and glasses clinking, the voices of others talking at nearby tables, the overlapping voices even at my own table, where everyone tries VERY HARD to talk one at a time (in vain) all will contribute to my missing a fair amount of what’s said.

But I’ll eat good food and drink good wine—and bask in the pleasure of being with people who love me. Just as I did last year. Sometimes hearing is over-rated.

I know some of you will disagree with with my acceptance of not hearing at my own birthday celebration.

Tell me how you celebrate yours. And read here for my thoughts on how you can actually be part of your own birthday party. 

About the Author

Katherine Bouton

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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