At a chamber music concert in Woodstock, N.Y., I noticed the hearing aids discreetly tucked behind the ears of the man sitting in front of me. Intrigued, I asked about them, knowing that, with tinnitus and diminished hearing in one ear, the day would come when I will need such a device.
He gently removed one to show me the tiny receiver that fits in his ear, attached by a very slender tube to the small, flesh-colored behind-the-ear case that housed a miniature microphone, amplifier and battery. Manipulating the tiny aids requires some dexterity, he said, "but they're a lot more comfortable than the first aids I had, which felt like peanuts stuck in my ears."
His name was Mark Hammel and, as a practicing psychologist with what he calls a "biopsychosocial approach to health," he told me he has far too often treated people whose lives could be much improved by hearing aids but who don't wear them. The reasons are many, including the "unfortunate fact that audiologists using hearing test cutoffs sometimes tell people they don't need a hearing aid yet, even though functionally they do," he said.
Hearing loss is usually gradual, and people often fail to recognize when it becomes severe enough to warrant hearing aids. Some deny that they have a problem, and instead accuse others of mumbling when they know people are talking but can't understand what is being said. Still others regard hearing aids as unattractive devices that make them feel and look old in a society that prizes youthfulness.