Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

They’re not your mother’s hearing aids.

Remember her complaints? The old devices squawked with feedback. They were failure-prone, and so glaringly visible that wearing a hearing aid was like putting an “I Can’t Hear” sign on your head.

But in the past 10 years — especially the last five — hearing aids have gone digital, and the result is stunning improvement.

First off, they’re small. The operational part of a modern hearing aids is a thin wedge-shaped device hidden behind the upper ear. A plastic wire not much larger than dental floss runs from the wedge to a miniscule speaker that fits into but doesn’t block the ear canal.

The result is near-invisibility of the instrument, coupled with bell-clear transmission of amplified sound. Furthermore, the modern hearing aid is not a one-size-fits all device. Hearing loss differs person-to-person, and hearing instruments these days compensate for each client’s individual hearing disability.

For baby boomers, these much-improved hearing devices arrive just in time.

According to the Ear Foundation, a national nonprofit agency devoted to hearing loss education and prevention, nearly half of the country’s 76 million boomers are experiencing some degree of hearing loss. Surveys of those afflicted reveal communication difficulties at work, problems using cell phones and disagreements over TV and radio volume.

Surprisingly, research shows that just 26 percent of boomers with hearing loss have bothered to take a hearing test. Of those diagnosed with a condition that could be improved by hearing aids, fewer than a quarter buy them.

Fear of stigma is one reason, though cost of the digital devices is probably a bigger factor. Two digital hearing aids — recommended by audiologists as opposed to one — generally cost $3,500 to $4,000. Insurance coverage is spotty at best.

Veterans are fortunate. If tests indicate need, the VA usually compensates up to 100 per cent. Medicare Advantage plans defray some cost. Blue Cross/Blue Shield offers a hearing aid option in its Federal Employee Program. But most middle-aged hearing impaired people are on their own.

Like lack of hearing aid coverage and high cost of the devices comes as a surprise to many people.

CHRISTOPHER ST. JOHN, 64 of Gardiner, recalls being irritable when his wife, Eunice, asked if he heard the sound of rain on the roof or bird song.

“Then at work I began to notice situations, particularly group meetings, when it was hard to hear, said St. John. “I had to ask people to speak up in meetings, and that’s not always easy.”

Four years ago, tests at an audiology clinic at Maine General Hospital in Augusta revealed that St. John experienced about a 15 percent loss in his intake of upper register sounds.

St. John, executive director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy in Augusta, opted for Orion Delta Optica hearing aids adjusted for his particular hearing loss. Since speakers for the devices do not block his ear canals, lower octave sounds he has no problem hearing enter his ear canals around the speaker units.

Like other digital hearing aid users, St. John reports dramatic improvement in picking up voices at meetings. People, especially younger people, don’t appear to notice his new instruments. Hard-of-hearing contemporaries do — and often ask about the devices.

Performance is worse in noisy places such as restaurants,” reports St. John, and they don’t work especially well in cavernous places like the Hall of Flags in the statehouse.

But overall, they’re a real benefit. “In problem situations,” he said, “they provide that little edge that enables me to pick out a voice in the hubbub.”

DONNA HALVORSEN, 65, lives with her husband in South Portland. She grew up in Minnesota where she experienced hearing difficulties as a child.

“I think I was born with a hearing loss,” she said, “but my parents didn’t realize it until I went to school.”

As a senior at the University of Minnesota, she tried a hearing aid hearing that did nothing to help. Another she attempted to use 15 years later wasn’t much better. A third did make a difference. At the time Halvorsen was legal affairs reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where her work earned her three nominations for a Pulitzer.

Still, her third nondigital hearing aid was far from perfect. “I had to crank the volume to a max to hear in courtrooms,” she recalls, “and it often made me nauseous.”

Returning to South Portland in 2007, where Halvorsen had been a staff writer for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram 18 years earlier, she went to an audiologist who fitted her with two Widex Diva digital hearing aids for $4,800. She recalls walking on a golf course her first day with the new devices.

“The first amazing things I heard,” she said, “were the crackling of leaves beneath my feet and birds singing.

“I urge anyone who has hearing problems to get tested and fitted, whenever possible,” she added. ‘If you haven’t heard for a long time, the aids may be uncomfortable initially. But if you stick with it, you will be pleased that you did.”

JONATHAN LEPOFF of North Monmouth knew he had a hearing loss problem 10 years ago while taking a course in Buddhism. Buddhists tend to speak quietly, he said, which caused difficulties for him, and for another student about his age.

“Why don’t these Buddhists talk louder,” he recalls his friend saying. “What about us geezers?”

Lepoff, now 66 and retired, used to work in state government as staff development coordinator for the Bureau of Labor Standards. His first stop in his quest for better hearing brought him to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist who referred him to Audiology and Hearing Aid Services in Waterville. His two Optican Digilife aids, he recalls, cost about $3,500.

Interestingly, the price included a lifetime supply of hearing aid batteries — a benefit that’s saved Lepoff around $1,500 in the past decade. Not all hearing aid providers have such a benefit. Replacement policies in the event of loss or breakage also appear to vary widely among providers.

These days, Lepoff teaches a course on Buddhism in the Senior College division of the University of Maine at Augusta. He wears his earing aid while teaching and going out in public. At home with his wife and daughter and a green-cheeked Conure parrot named Jack, he often leaves them out.

“Wearing a hearing aid has had quite a dramatic effect,” he said. He suggests a series of steps for those who suspect hearing loss.

“I recommend seeing an ENT first to make sure your problem isn’t wax in the ear or some other complication,” he said. “Then I recommend going to an audiologist — and I definitely recommend digital models.”

MY OWN EXPERIENCE with hearing aids has so much in common with people I interviewed that I’ll just describe what happened the morning I stepped out of Northeast Hearing in Portland wearing — for the first time — two Opticon Dual Connect digital hearing aids.

The first thing I recall hearing was the crunch-crunch sound my sneakers made as I crossed the gravel and tar parking lot. I stopped in my tracks. How long had it been since I’d heard that sound? Then I heard wind in trees in a way I hadn’t heard it in many years.

Then, as I turned onto Commercial Street in my 13-year-old car, I realized instantly that it wasn’t the smooth-riding vehicle I’d assumed it to be. It sounded like a bucket of bolts.

There was another thing about driving with the new digitals that made a big impression, since it had to do with safety.

Shortly after merging on to I-295 northbound, I detected the tick-tick-tick sound of my car’s directional indicators. They had failed to turn off automatically when I merged and, because of my car’s design, the steering wheel blocks the blinking dashboard light that’s the other signal warning. As I shut off the blinker, I wondered how many times I’d annoyed other drivers on the interstate with a chronically blinking signal light.

I like and depend upon my devices. Yes, you have to take them out at night and clean them. You have to be careful not to get them wet, or knock them off your ears with a carelessly pulled-off sweater. They can be annoying in a noisy restaurant because they magnify the volume of background noise. And they did cost me around $4,000, hardly any of it covered by insurance.

But I never regret buying them. I no longer frustrate my wife and son by turning up the radio or repeatedly asking, what? It’s great hearing peeper frogs and birds. When I brag about my new devices, the reaction I most often get is, “You have hearing aids?”

That’s how invisible they are.

Lloyd Ferriss is a writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.

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