'How can he hear you but not me?' Hearing loss tested my family in surprising ways
The first sign of illness in my Uncle Bob was his swollen, curled hands—the mark of rheumatoid arthritis. Then, not long after, type 2 diabetes.
For a veteran and longtime auto mechanic, these illnesses in and of themselves were life changing. His wife and two children rallied around him, endlessly patient with a man who was used to taking care of himself.
But when he began to lose his hearing, the change shifted our family dynamics in ways his other illnesses had not.
The telephone was his lifeline
Growing up, Bob and my mother were close. He was her older brother and she always looked up to him. She loved to tell stories of the times he’d visited her at college when he was on furlough from the Army. For me, he was the person in my life who bought me my first bike and introduced me to blues music by buying me a guitar. I never really learned to play—lessons didn't stick—but I still share Uncle Bob’s love of the blues. His visits and the way he doted on me made me feel special.
When I got older, my mom and I lived in another state, so we stayed in touch with Bob and his family mostly by telephone. My mom and I both experienced some ups and downs in our careers, making it hard to visit in person.
Before he got sick, we’d sometimes go months without calling as everyone went about their busy lives.
As his health declined this changed: Phone calls became more frequent, this was how memories were shared and cherished. He couldn’t text or email; phone calls were his lifeline.
Until the hearing loss set in.
Eventually, he could no longer talk on the phone without constantly asking for a repeat of phrases, sentences, and finally entire conversations. It was bad enough that he’d lost his ability to drive, but now his hearing was going, too.
At that point, I think no one in the family wanted to think about losing him, especially my mom. But distance—and hearing loss—separated us and accelerated the sense of loss.
A reluctance to wear hearing aids
His family suggested hearing aids. Naturally, he didn’t want them.
Few older adults do. Although hearing loss is present in about one-third of older adults, only a fraction of them wear hearing aids, according to statistics on hearing loss and hearing aids.
“Research shows that it could take the hearing-impaired person between five to 10 years living withhearing loss before they seek evaluation and possible treatment,” says Dr. Melissa E. Heche, AuD, and clinical voice pathologist at New York Speech and Hearing.
Both the cost of hearing aids—Medicare doesn’t pay for them—and the stigma of wearing them keep many older people from hearing better, according to Dr. Heche.
“Unfortunately, even in this advanced society—where hearing loss afflicts younger individuals and there is increased awareness of hearing impairments—there still remains a stigma associated with the use of hearing aids,” she said. “Because a person can compensate with a hearing loss a little easier than they can compensate with a visual loss, people tend to want to delay the use of hearing aids because they associate it with aging.”
Diabetes and hearing loss
It’s not surprising that my uncle developed hearing loss. Bob was a veteran, and a history of military service is strongly linked to hearing loss and tinnitus. That, paired with his hard-to-control diabetes, put him in the high-risk category for hearing loss. In a series of 2015 studies by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, veterans with uncontrolled diabetes were more likely to have hearing loss than those with tightly controlled diabetes.
Although diabetes and hearing loss are highly linked, the American Diabetes Association says it's unclear why. Because the ears are sensitive to blood supply, the vascular damage caused by high blood glucose levels is a likely culprit, though, according to the ADA.
A distressing situation for my mom
Eventually Bob got hearing aids. But they didn’t always work well for him, and he often torpedoed efforts to find a solution, according to my cousin, Samaria (known to the family as Sam). Some days he simply refused to go in the senior-assisted van that would take him to his ear doctor appointments.
It was distressing for my mom during our phone calls with Bob and his family, particularly because he’d often ask to speak to me instead. For whatever reason, he found my voice on the phone easier to understand. It was probably related to his unique pattern of hearing loss, which can affect all kinds of different frequencies, from high to low. My mom speculated that he didn’t have the right hearing aids, or they weren’t correctly tuned to the right level. These conversational breakdowns were hard on her.
“How can he hear you and not me?” she’d ask, then add, “at least he can hear one of us.”
While she loved that I was close to her brother, she started to feel that she and Bob had lost their connection.
There were times she'd simply walk away if I was on the phone with him. I'd scramble for an excuse when he asked if she was there.
My mom wanted each phone call to feel timeless, like they were still two young, carefree kids.
Things briefly got better after a hearing care specialist discovered and removed impacted earwax, a little-known but fairly common cause of temporary hearing loss. It can also clog hearing aids. My uncle could hear my mom again. It wasn’t crystal clear, but it was enough that they could talk about the old days, and how he was coping with his worsening health.
'Bob isn't doing well'
Perhaps sensing that Bob's severe diabetes and the hearing loss were signs that they didn’t have forever, my mom’s feelings changed from annoyance to planning a trip to see him.
“He makes jokes, but Bob isn’t doing well,” she’d say.
I knew from the look on her face that his illness was getting worse. She saved money to take a vacation to see him.
Before the visit, my uncle—a caring man with large, expressive eyes shaded by long lashes—lost his legs to diabetes, a devastating loss.
The trip was put on hold for him to recover and return home. My mom went from carefully planning a visit to simply going as soon as my aunt said come.
And she did eventually go. Tears, hugs and love filled the trip, my mom said. Not long after, we lost Bob.
It's been five years since he passed. His brush with hearing loss made me aware that it can happen to any of us at any time. I'm much more mindful now of loud noises —especially leaf blowers and construction sites. Should my hearing decline, I won't hesitate to get tested, and I'll wear the hearing aids recommended to me, without worrying about the stigma.
My hearing needs to be preserved, not ignored, for both me and my loved ones.