Let There Be Light

We went to the audiologist two weeks ago because Mama lost the remote control for her hearing aid. It is frequently misplaced, but I am always able to find it quickly. This time, in spite of many searches and searchers, it remained snugly hidden away. It zones her aid to block extraneous noise so she can hear what’s right in front of her—or left, right, behind—or change the volume, though she never uses it with her daughters, preferring to tell us we are talking too loud. I never really understood it; more than anything I think it gave her a sense of control, whether or not it really helped.

The aid was found before her appointment (under the cushion in the rocking chair in her bedroom), but Mama wanted to go anyway. “Maybe I should have a spare. And maybe the aid can be reprogrammed to help me hear better.” The last time we had it checked, it was already as good as it could be, so I excused myself for being skeptical, even snarky—though there isn’t ever an excuse for that really. She is always hoping for a cure for old age.

Turns out, her aid is 13 years old and remarkable strides have been made in technology in the past decade. The audiologist was virtually certain she could hear better. To what degree, she wasn’t sure, but most surely some amount. (It is very expensive, and neither Medicare nor her supplemental insurance covers it, which makes me furious. She has the resources, but so many don’t. When will insurance start covering quality of life for the old-old rather than unnecessary medical procedures? More on that rant in last week’s post.)

When we returned to Olympia last week for her hearing test and to program the aid, I re-learned stuff. There is a range of hearing that shrinks as we age until we can no longer hear high and low pitches. And some common sounds—like “s” and “k”—are in the high register. And high pitched voices? Forget them. She simply can’t hear those people. What’s more, while the younger among us may not like loud noises, we can deal with them for a while. Old brains cannot tolerate it, even for a moment. It’s like their head is exploding. It’s not their auditory senses, it’s their brain not processing well. That includes people who talk too loud, which we all do when we are talking to old people. We assume that it will help, when—especially if they have a hearing aide—speaking slowly, enunciating, standing or sitting in front of them, modulating our voice into the middle (call it monotone) range is what helps.

New hearing technology can increase the volume at those out-of-range pitches, while not increasing it at the mid-range. It can also be set so that hearing focuses on a speaker in front of Mama so it cuts out the extraneous noise behind and beside her—like her remote did. That means she sacrifices being able to hear someone talking behind her, but makes it easier to have a conversation in a crowded room—by which I mean more than one other person.

The aid was put in her ear and Mama was immediately sure it wouldn’t work for her. “It roars,” she said, her tone registering her expectation. (She had resisted being excited, because she expected to be disappointed.)
“Are you hearing the traffic?” the audiologist asked.
“Is that what it is?” There was a break in the traffic noise, and Wendy asked if she still heard the roaring. Mama said no.
“But my voice sounds scratchy and forced.”
“That’s because you are hearing it better,” Wendy said. “It’s like hearing your voice on an answering machine and it doesn’t sound like you. You’re hearing it through a new device. You have to get used to it again.”
“You’re talking too loud,” Mama said. Wendy was nearly whispering.
“I can’t consistently speak as softly as you are,” I told Wendy.
“I’ll turn it down,” she said, and fiddled with her computer. “Talk to her and we’ll make adjustments for your voice.”

“Is my hearing worse?” Mama asked.
“Actually,” Wendy told her,”the results of the test are almost exactly the same as two years ago.”
“Why haven’t I been hearing as well, then?” Mama asked.
“Because as our brains age, they don’t process what we hear as well as they used to.”

It’s a good reminder to me that even though she doesn’t show clear signs of dementia—at least to people who aren’t around her as much as I am—her brain is worn out; and I need to cut her more slack. It’s not her fault that she doesn’t hear or understand. And it doesn’t help her or me to be impatient with her. Though I will cut myself slack, too; it’s maddening to repeat something over and over. I get lots of oxygen as I practice deep breathing.

We went to lunch at a Thai restaurant after the appointment: soft noodles, steamed vegetables, no nuts. The server asked if she could have coconut milk. I said, softly, “just don’t tell her.” (I cook with it and it’s fine. She just can’t digest flaked coconut, or thinks she can’t.)
“I can’t tolerate coconut milk,” Mama said. Note to self: no more talking behind her back.

At home, while I napped, Mama watched the local news, then fell asleep in the chair. I woke her up to see what she wanted to eat (she couldn’t eat her late lunch, not cooked right). She exclaimed, “I heard the weather man! I have never been able to understand him. He still talks fast, but I understood him!”

Tears filled my eyes.

We can’t do anything about Mama’s vision, sadly; but to hear again? It has to be like a step out of the dark and into the light. There is still magic. Even when you are 99. The next day—along with the refrigerator running—she heard the birds singing.