Musings on Silence and Hearing Loss

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Exactly ten years ago, I gave in to hearing aids.  At the time, the main reason was that I would be working with adult teachers of writing during the summer.  I knew from experience that adults were often shy about reading their work aloud. Without technological help, I would miss their muttered words. 

            Anticipating this trouble, I went to a local hearing aid center and invested in hearing aids.  These devices are expensive.  I pulled out my credit card because I was weary of straining to hear.

            Now, a decade later, my hearing has deteriorated.  It’s not a matter of increasing the volume anymore.  The actual words themselves are often unintelligible.  This is typical of aging ears.  The high sounds required for hearing consonants are no longer detectable.  Even if there is no other impediment, such as ambient noise, I still can’t make out the words. With this new problem, I was depending more and more on reading speech and facial expressions.  Then—enter COVID-19 and face masks.

            The impact of social distancing and face masks on seniors is a hot topic among those of us in our “golden years.”  The masks muffle voices and cover up the mouth that I watch for cues. Facial expressions are limited to forehead and eyes.  Often, I get tired of asking the speaker to repeat. I just keep nodding my head.

            For me, losing the clarity of sound is sad, and sometimes it worries me.  I mourn that I no longer hear the subtle night sounds.  Without my hearing aids, I can’t hear the owls call at night, or raindrops outside the window.  What if someone rings the doorbell?  What if there is an emergency—someone screaming for help?  I would sleep on, hearing only the low, continuous shooshing of my tinnitus.

            Coincidentally, this afternoon I heard a Ted Talk on public radio.  The speaker, Rebecca Knill, was a woman who had been born profoundly deaf, and had eventually, in 2003, received cochlear implants.  She spoke about how much she enjoys silence.  She looks forward to coming home after work and “unplugging” her ears.  “Complete silence is very addictive,” she says.

            Thinking about how silence is for me, I recalled this poem by Leonard Cohen:

            Gift

            You tell me that silence

            is nearer to peace than poems

            but if for my gift

            I brought you silence

            (for I know silence)

            you would say

            This is not silence

            this is another poem

            and you would hand it back to me.

            I’m not quite sure how this kind of silence relates to physiological deafness.  Maybe it’s about the choice.  Knill chooses silence by unplugging herself.  There are times I’d like to hear when I can’t.  But there are also times I choose and prefer silence.  However, my experience of silence is not the same as the silence of the profoundly deaf.  My “silence” is more like listening to a white noise machine, due to the tinnitus. 

One thing I know for sure: the corona virus has impacted my ability to hear and my interactions with others.  Just one more COVID consequence.

Fear and Longing

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My granddaughters live three states away. I haven’t seen them since January. The enforced separation is causing tears and heartache—on both sides. For me, though, as the aging adult, the longing is confused and aggravated by fear.

I’m close to seventy years old. What if I die before we can be together again? This strange and virulent disease could be the end of me. Other younger folk are often less anxious. Today we ventured out to a D.IY. store to get some needed house supplies. Although most of the customers had on masks, there was an atmosphere of laxity that I found alarming.

I hurried through the store, flinging air filters and bug spray into our cart. On the checkout line, the man in front of us had no mask. I commented on this and pulled back further. My husband, whose dementia blanks out the crisis daily, made a joke about the fellow being a tough guy.

“It’s not funny!” I shouted. I moved our cart to the self-checkout lane and rushed out of the store.

I don’t know if we’ll attempt another shopping trip. I truly felt unsafe, and also angry that others’ cavalier attitudes force me to take risks.

When I asked my doctor about the advisability of visiting the family, he said, “Sure, you can walk with them outdoors.”

“Oh, no, but they live five hours away,” I said.

“Nope.”

If this social isolation lasts months longer, I may reassess the risks versus the emptiness. For now, though, we’re back in the apartment, too far away.

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