Things people don’t understand about hearing loss: number two….hearing aids don’t give you your hearing back

45282551 - puppy listening with raised ear. dog eavesdroppingBut people think they do, don’t they?  They think you put them in your ears and, lo and behold, you can hear again.  But it’s not like that.  It’s become a bit of a cliché amongst people with hearing loss that hearing aids are not like spectacles, but it’s true.  I’m short-sighted but when I put my glasses on I can see almost perfectly.  Hearing aids???  No, no…..not like that at all.

Well, let me have a caveat here.  They don’t work like glasses unless your hearing loss is really fairly mild.  I meet people and I read about people who do, in fact, put their hearing aids in and experience a huge and immediate benefit.  I’m sure when I got my first one, about twenty five years ago, it made a big difference.  When there is just a relatively small amount of hearing loss to be tweaked amplifying the “hearing loss bits” works.  It’s when the “hearing loss bits” get more substantial that the problems really kick in.

A quick look at three of the problems……..

One.  Hearing aids amplify the sounds you are not so good at hearing, but they can’t amplify a sound if you are profoundly deaf for that particular frequency.  If there’s no hearing left for, say, very high pitched sounds (some consonants for example, or the sound of birds singing) no amount of amplification will make any difference.

Two.  Hearing aids amplify everything at the affected frequency, not just the bits you want to hear.  The healthy human ear is very good at differentiating between speech and background noise, for example.  So far, no hearing aid comes close to being able to do that anywhere near as well.  Many claim to have “noise reduction” settings but my deaf friends and I have often bemoaned the effectiveness of them.  They can be quite good, in our opinion, for reducing the sound of the vacuum cleaner or the passing lorry.  What they are not very good at is helping you to hear the one voice you are trying to hear amongst a hubbub of other chattering people.

Three.  Wearing hearing aids requires the brain to make a big adjustment.  Particularly difficult, in my case, was going from one hearing aid to two.  It was awful.  My whole head felt blocked up.  My voice sounded really strange and other people’s voices even worse.  I was working then and I remember one day trying to run a team meeting, really struggling to hear people, trying and trying again and then……..yes……..ripping the new aid out and carrying on with only one hearing aid, heaving a huge sigh of relief.

In the end, I got used to wearing two of them.  Clearly, there was a lot of what I would now call brain-training going on, as the brain struggled to adapt to a completely different experience.  Eventually, Brain worked it out, and I happily wore aids in both ears for many years – but I can see why people give up.

Lots of problems, then, but in my experience very little forewarning of them.

I’m writing this from a new perspective.  I still wear a high powered hearing aid in my left ear but, as all readers of this blog know, the right one now has a cochlear implant.  That means that I’ve lived through an admirably thorough process of preparation and follow up, designed to give cochlear implant recipients the best possible start with their new device.

The Cochlear Implant Centre in Bradford first of all manages expectations.  You are still going to be deaf.  Things will get better but perhaps only somewhat; don’t expect miracles.  You are going to have to work hard at adjusting to the new experience; it won’t happen automatically.  You will get tired and may want to take the speech processor off; please try not to.

Crucially, the centre goes out of its way to involve families or friends too, so that they too have their expectations managed and have a good idea what their loved one or friend is letting themselves in for.  Nigel came with me to a fantastic orientation session before the operation, where he could ask his own questions and talk with someone who’d already had an implant.  He also had to complete his own expectations questionnaire.  Yes, he realised I was still going to be deaf.  He knew there were months of practice ahead.  He knew that outcomes varied.  Staff told us that they sometimes had to spend a lot of time managing relatives’ expectations downwards, because they could be quite unrealistic.

But when you get given a hearing aid (or two) what do you get??  Very little, usually.

I can’t remember any expectation managing.  Nigel was never invited along or told what to expect.  I wasn’t told how hard the adjustment would be and I wasn’t offered much follow-up. They would see me if I got in touch with a problem but there was no proactive programme of support.  There are no Hearing Therapists employed at our local hospital.  I accept that many people’s hearing loss is within the mild to moderate range and perhaps intensive follow-up and support is not appropriate but to have experienced almost NOTHING at any stage of my hearing aid story is, I think, indicative of a problem.

At the very least, surely, there should be easily available literature, explaining the problems.  Literature for relatives and friends should not just set out “ten ways to communicate with someone with hearing loss” but explain the limitations of hearing aids, and how hard they can be to wear, so that people don’t think their deaf relative or friend is just “not trying hard enough”.  Relatives and friends need their expectations managed.

Actually sometimes I think audiologists need their expectations managed.  In my experience they often seemed to really believe that “X” hearing aid feature would be hugely beneficial, which made it all the more disappointing when I found it didn’t help very much at all.

Certainly, some hearing aid manufacturers could do with a huge dose of expectation management.  “Perfect clarity!” they say.  “Better than you’ve ever heard before!!”

No no……’s not like that.  Not like that at all.

PS. Number one of “things people don’t understand”, back in October, was about noise.  You can read it here.


Image copyright: tatyanagl / 123RF Stock Photo


13 thoughts on “Things people don’t understand about hearing loss: number two….hearing aids don’t give you your hearing back

  1. Thank you for your article, Vera. As always, you are right on the money; it IS difficult to help hearing people (perhaps we should have our own code word like “muggles” for hearing people?) to understand what it is like to have a loss of hearing. My lovely wife, bless her, is very patient with my hearing loss, but occasionally she still tries to talk to me from a different room…. ahhhhhhhhhh!

    1. Ah yes, the from-the-next-room problem. I know it. Then there is the whilst-the-tap-is-running problem and the back-turned-mumble-not-even-a-sentence problem.
      The only code word I’ve come across is “the hearies”, which is quite good but maybe something more imaginative would be better (except I haven’t got the imagination to think of anything).
      Happy New Year, Keith, and all best wishes. Vera.

  2. That is so interesting to read Vera. I have worn an aid for some 30 years. I had a stapendectomy in my left ear, and was apparently the surgeon’s only failure. Can you imagine how great that feels? So I have tried an aid in my left ear too but it is now clearly damaged and sound just gets distorted. What I do have since the op is chronic tinnitus which makes hearing even more difficult. It is a strain, especially in noisy environments, which I usually try to avoid. Thank you for this great article.

    1. Hi. No, there are no words for being the one person the operation didn’t work for, especially since it seems to have made matters worse. Everyone stresses the risks of all medical procedures these days but we all feel that we won’t be the unlucky one. Cyber hug heading your way.

      1. Thank you Vera. What nobody mentioned is that any ear operations could result in tinnitus. Had they done so, I might well have held back. I know people who are suicidal through it. Ah well, loved your hug. XX

  3. Hello Vera, as always a well written explanation of wearing hearing aids and explained so much better than any literature I have read. I have sent your article my nearest and dearest in the hopes that they will now understand my frustrations and have a better understanding of what it is like to wear hearing aids.
    Keep up the good work, Patricia

  4. I’m 38 and relatively new to hearing aids (been wearing them bilaterally for 11 months).

    For as much as they do help, I also find it a lot more mentally exhausting. As you say, there are no expectations given when getting hearing aids and I thought my hearing would be much, much better than it is. No doubt it has improved but I think my expectations, coupled with the fact everyone presumes that because you have hearing aids your hearing is now perfect again, I actually find listening to people much harder work than it used to be. I’m trying to find something locally in terms of lip reading classes as I think that will help. It is really reassuring to know that other aid users experience the same thing.

    1. Hello Catherine, good to hear from you.
      I found lip reading classes hugely helpful. This was partly because I found understanding the “theory” of lip reading very useful (knowing which sounds look identical on the lips, for example, sometimes helps my brain to decipher some “meaningless” word) and partly (perhaps mainly) because of the relief of finding a tribe of people who knew what I was talking about. The class actually morphed from a “mainly lipreading” class into a “mainly general hearing support” class, which was the tutor’s idea, so now we do some lip reading but also quite a lot of talking around particular problem areas (eg where best to sit in a restaurant). I hope you find something near to you.
      I’m also lucky to have a very good friend who has two powerful hearing aids, and having someone to moan to, laugh with, share mortifying moments with and wonder at the ability of hearing people not to “get it” keeps us both going. Hope you have one of those too!
      One thing about lip reading groups, though, is that you probably need to brace yourself for being by far the youngest person there. I’m usually one of the youngest and I’m 65. When I lived in London in the 1980s I went to a great evening lip reading class at the City Lit, specially aimed at younger people with hearing loss. Of course, you are in your 30s so no doubt you already know about the plethora of hearing loss Facebook groups, which no doubt attract a younger demographic. There is a More Than A Bit Deaf Facebook group, too, for followers of this blog, if you are interested.
      OK…..stop me going on! Very best wishes and thanks for getting in touch.

  5. Good afternoon Vera,

    I work for The Manx Deaf Society on the Isle of Man and as part of my job I run lipreading classes for adults with hearing loss.

    Would you mind if I link your blog posts to our Facebook page?

    I would also like to share your blog with my lipreading groups – do you mind if I print out your latest blog about the trouble with hearing aids?

    In both cases I will of course acknowledge that I am not the author and credit you.

    With best regards,

    Lucy Buxton Communication & Support Manager The Manx Deaf Society Registered Charity Number 1253 (formerly 232)

    On Thu, 10 Jan 2019 at 11:52, More than a bit deaf wrote:

    > Vera posted: “But people think they do, don’t they? They think you put > them in your ears and, lo and behold, you can hear again. But it’s not > like that. It’s become a bit of a cliché amongst people with hearing loss > that hearing aids are not like spectacles, but it’” >

  6. Thanks Vera, as usual, you are right on target in explaining how our experiences differ from those who don’t have hearing loss. I always pass along your blog to my wife so that she understands my frustration when I am in a challenging hearing environment. I appreciate your ability to put my experiences into words.

    1. Hello Michael. Thanks for leaving a comment. It really helps ME to feel part of a community that knows what I’m blathering on about (!) so I’m really pleased that you find it helps too. Very best wishes. Vera.

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