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January 7, 2005

Hearing aid tips worth listening to

From: Tri-Town Transcript - Beverly,MA,USA - Jan 7, 2005

By Richard Griffin/ Growing Older
Friday, January 7, 2005

"They should be disposable like contact lenses," says a Boston friend, Peggy Loeb, about hearing aids. "One of the biggest rip-offs; people pay thousands of dollars, but they never work," adds this critic of what is currently on the market. She does not need such aids herself but resents the grief suffered by older friends trying to cope with them.

Another Bostonian, Kay Hanley, at age 84, uses hearing aids herself and offers a more moderate appraisal of their performance. "It's something you just have to get used to," she says. Not everyone does, she admits, citing friends who "get them and keep them in the drawer."

Somerville resident Al Rubbio has been a strong advocate of greater consumer protection for hearing aid purchasers. As a two-time president of the Silver Haired Legislature, Al led the way toward legislation requiring a clear statement of the guarantee throughout the 30-day trial period. "They were cheating the public," Al says. "Everyone was having the same problem."

Harvard Research Professor William R. Hutchison confesses to disappointment with his current hearing aids. "I find them quite helpful in some situations but not at all in others." His are digital and they cost him more than $4,000. To make matters worse, he lost one of them two weeks ago and has no insurance to cover this loss.

Bill concedes the effectiveness of hearing aids in upping the volume of what is said. The problem comes, he says, in sound recognition. Even with the best equipment, it is hard "distinguishing sounds; one does not hear consonants." He approvingly quotes his doctor at Massachusetts Eye and Ear who says: "They haven't perfected these things."

Professor Hutchison poignantly summarizes what it feels like to hear inadequately. "It injects an element of concern about the situation that you're going to be in," he confesses. And once you are there, "it's tiring to figure out what people are saying."

I never much trusted reports from deaf people that this affliction is worse than blindness because they go against what seems self-evident. However, so many people have witnessed the often devastating consequences that accompany the loss of hearing that I have come to believe what they say. So often, being hard of hearing produces acute loss of confidence and social isolation, among other effects.

As on many other practical matters, the best way of serving readers is to urge you to consult the best sources of information and counsel. In this instance, we are all fortunate to have a state agency that provides both. The Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing was established in 1985 and, among other functions, serves as an advocate for consumers interested in hearing aids.

If you have access to the Internet, tap into the address: There you will find the best basic material you are likely to see anywhere. If you do not use a computer, call 617-740-1600 and ask for them to send you the material. Further background of high quality can be found at in the form of an article by Mark Ross, Ph.D. whose research agency is based at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

The Massachusetts Commission (MCDHH) first clears the air with this acknowledgement: "NO hearing aid is capable of matching the healthy human ear in the reproduction of sound." MCDHH sees unrealistic expectation of what hearing aids can do as leading to "premature and ill-advised discontinuation of their use."

The best way of responding to loss of hearing sharpness is to schedule an appointment with an ear, nose and throat specialist. That is strongly advisable because often hearing loss is a side effect of some serious illness requiring treatment for itself. Older people are not the only ones to experience hearing loss: MCDHH calls it one of "the great equalizers" because it affects people of all ages and conditions.

When physicians diagnose a hearing problem, they will refer you to an audiologist, a medically trained professional who will give you a hearing test and, if advisable, will either help you choose a hearing aid or refer you to another person who will.

Digital hearing aids are likely to cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars more than so-called analog (older) devices. Given the amount of money involved, MCDHH advises getting a receipt making explicit your right to return the product within 30 days. Also, the agency warns: "If, during the selection process you have even one iota of doubt about your ability to handle the hearing aid, don't consider it."

Dr. Ross, for his part, makes several wise suggestions. Among them, he advises that "you do have to wear the hearing aids a significant number of hours each day in different types of situations if you are to judge whether or not the cost is worth the benefit."

The upshot of the discussion would seem to vindicate both the critics of hearing aids as they currently function and those who see value in them if carefully chosen. Choosing, it turns out, can be a complicated and subtle enterprise.

( Richard Griffin is a regularly featured columnist in Community Newspaper Company publications. He can be reached by e-mail at or by calling 617-661-0710. )

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