Paul Andrews tells us about the challenges he is facing as he grows older and finds himself a little hard of hearing.
Was that the front door bell? my friend asked. I was baffled. I hadn’t heard a thing. It was a first indication that my hearing was below par, and the impression grew stronger as I watched myself. Watching TV, I found myself asking others, ‘What did she say?’ But you cannot bother other viewers all the time, so films became boring because I missed the fast dialogue. In social gatherings I watched people’s lips as well as straining to hear them. The give and take of conversation became hard work.
I asked the doctor to investigate. He cleaned some wax out of my ears. That helped, and I thought maybe the problem was solved. Alas, no. Gradually I came to accept this as one more sign of growing old.
Our hearing, especially in the high frequencies, tends to reach its peak round the age of seventeen, so the decline starts early, and happens faster in some than others. A condition called presbycusis, or ageing ear, means that by the time most people turn twenty-five, they cannot hear much above a frequency of 13 or 14 kilohertz. The friend who heard the doorbell when I heard nothing, was only fifteen.
In fact they are now producing gadgets that make allowance for the superior hearing of the young, especially in the higher frequencies. A high-frequency sonic alarm has been created to stop troublesome teens from loitering in shopping centres. It does not bother adults – they don’t hear it but teenagers are driven mad by the high scream, and clear out.
A more teen-friendly device is the Mosquito ringtone, which lets teenagers hear their mobile phones ringing without adults knowing; it was developed because adults lose the ability to hear high-pitched sound. Now the same sound is being used in a dance track, Buzzin’, with secret melodies that only young ears can hear. You might call it ageist music, discriminating against older people, but I am not starting a campaign. I do not envy the young their dance tracks, but I would love to regain their acuity of hearing.
So what can I do about it? First, I can accept the truth and not deny it. I have a friend who is as deaf as the proverbial post, but he insists that his hearing is good, just he does not concentrate enough. So, he will not wear a hearing aid!
In company he wears a fixed smile, because he does not hear a word that anybody is saying. If he intervenes in a conversation, it is from an agenda that has been building up in his mind, and has no relation to what others have been talking about. And he tends to finish meals early and go about his business, which occupies him agreeably and without the hazard of conversation. He does not realize how isolated he has become.
Another friend, who has always loved company, reacts to his deafness by talking at length when he gets an opening, and drifting away when the conversation becomes many-sided and quick.
Sooner or later, I suppose, I’ll have to get a hearing aid. Those who have these aids warn me that they do not help much in a crowd; it is still difficult to pick out the individual voice against the buzz of general conversation. Still, I should use whatever help is there.
I will be in unexpected company. That most alert of politicians, ex-president Bill Clinton, was fitted with high-frequency hearing aids in both ears nearly ten years ago, when he found that he was failing to pick up what hecklers were shouting at him. He was paying the price for exposure, as a young man, to loud saxophone music (played by himself).
What else can I do to help? Talk clearly, so that other hearing impaired people can be in touch. Learn to use e-mail, that most precious and simple way of staying close to friends wherever they are. Watch myself that I do not gravitate towards isolation, and towards enjoying my own company too much.
A close friend had watched his deafness grow over the years, despite all the help that doctors and a hearing aid could offer. I always admired how he worked at it. He went to lip-reading classes, and never shied away from company, even if it meant that he had to ask for help much of the time.
Finally his hearing reached a point where no gadget could help him: he was stone deaf. At that stage he was finally offered a cochlear implant, virtually a bionic ear, a new way of hearing. It meant a long and delicate operation, but it transformed his life. Once again he could join in conversations and use the telephone. It felt like a miracle.
All this is continuing the struggle that we see in Jesus’ life, the struggle against sickness, the battle to live our lives and enjoy our senses more fully. One of his most dramatic miracles is recounted by Mark (7,31):
‘They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, Be opened. And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak”.’
Be opened! That was his key message. Do not shut yourself off, but treasure the senses that open us to the world of other people.
O Lord, you are not a God of dead but of living people. We ask you, who have made us to bless us and keep us alive. Receive us when we die, renew us when we grow old, make us open if we become closed to you, for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son.
This article first appeared in the Messenger (May 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.